Using Power Lines For Autonomous Drone Charging

The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), based out of Manhattan, NY, was founded in 1963 as an association for professionals in the fields suggested in its name. The association has more than 400,000 members in 160 countries. The IEEE is responsible for the publication of more than 200 peer-reviewed journals, more than 30% of all publications in the fields of computer engineering and electronics. Within the IEEE are 39 specialized technical societies.

Senior Members of the IEEE make up only 7% of the association’s membership. In recognition of his professional and academic achievements in embedded electronics for drone technologies, Emad Ebeid recently became an IEEE Senior Member. With post doctoral degrees from both Aarhus University and the University of Verona, Emad is currently working at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU) where he oversees an array of drone based research and development projects.

On March 11, 2024, Emad served as the supervising professor for a research paper led by PhD student and IEEE member Viet Duong Hoang, titled Autonomous Overhead Powerline Recharging for Uninterrupted Drone Operations. Viet joined Emad in the SDU UAS center after receiving his Master’s degree from Hanoi University of Science and Technology in Vietnam. After experience working in the drone industry, Viet began working on SDU’s Drones4Safety program which ultimately led to the findings he and his co-researchers published in the aforementioned paper.

As stated on the project’s website, “The aim of Drones4Safety (D4S) is to develop a system of autonomous, self-charging, and collaborative drones that can inspect a big portion of transportation infrastructures in a continuous operation.” The goal is to develop a fail safe way to inspect railway and power lines throughout Europe. The way such inspections are done now is time consuming and expensive. The use of drones for these inspections would solve this issue and provide more accurate continuous data than typical manual methods.

The problem is enabling drones to fly continuously and autonomously. Drone batteries typically only last for 20-30 minutes of flight time. In most cases, the batteries are swapped out. But for continuous autonomous flight, Viet needed to design a drone capable of recharging itself, while still collecting data. Viet and his colleagues, under the guidance of Emad, designed a special gripper that connects to the drone. This device allows the drone to attach to nearby powerlines to recharge.

In the paper it explains, “The drone is equipped with a robust onboard perception and navigation system that enables it to locate powerlines and approach them for landing. A passively actuated gripping mechanism grasps the powerline cable during landing after which a control circuit regulates the magnetic field inside a split-core current transformer to provide sufficient holding force as well as battery recharging.” In a video demonstration, the team goes on to say, “The current in the powerline was approximately 300 amperes from which the energy harvesting device was able to charge the battery with 50 watts.”

Viet’s research points out that they expect powerlines with higher currents would proportionately provide a greater charge to the drone battery. It is also important to point out that throughout the process, the drones flew autonomously and recorded data from the surrounding area continuously. For this first round of testing, the paper concludes “The integrated system was demonstrated to operate for more than two hours with five inspection/charging cycles, proving its feasibility.”

It is a starting point that can change the way drones are used across many industries. While drones are inexpensive and easy to operate, they are limited to short battery lifespans. If a drone can simply locate a powerline to recharge itself, flight possibilities can become virtually limitless. Inspecting railways and powerlines, as in the D4S project, is just the beginning.

Drones with the ability to self charge can fully carry out delivery missions, provide situational and tactical support for emergency responders, assist in search and rescue operations, or even gather pertinent data on environmental studies. For years now, both nonmembers and members of the IEEE have recognized the potential of drones. With the research being conducted at SDU, the true potential of drones can finally be reached.

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