Robotics Collaboration with Japanese Power Utility

UKZN and TEPSCO conclude successful negotiations over powerline inspection robot technology (Dr Trevor Lorimer, 2nd right, with Suvina Singh and Deven Reddy from UKZN InQubate and TEPSCO representatives).

Tokyo Electric Power Services Company (TEPSCO), a subsidiary of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), visited UKZN in September to conclude a deal for development and utilisation of UKZN’s powerline inspection robot (PLIR) technology to facilitate use of the technology on powerlines in Japan and Asia.


During the visit, the TEPSCO personnel also received training on the use of the robot. In addition, they had the opportunity to tour the Electrical, Electronic, and Computer Engineering laboratory, and the Vibration Research and Testing Centre (VRTC), as well as the Smart Grid Research Centre, and the High Voltage DC and AC laboratories by Dr Andrew Swanson.


The visit by TEPSCO was preceded by several engagements with Lorimer and co-inventor, Prof Ed Boje, the last of which involved a demonstration by the inventors of the prototype robots at TEPCO’S Tokyo facility.
The PLIR technology, developed Dr Trevor Lorimer from the School of Mechanical Engineering in collaboration with Eskom, serves to improve current inspection methods of power lines. Overhead powerlines are valuable assets that are exposed to harsh conditions.


The repair of damage to a grid that spans vast distances is costly and challenging. Regular inspection of powerlines is essential to identify damage early for maintenance planning and tracking fault progression. The robot, which is controlled from a specially-designed ground station, is designed to withstand the extreme electromagnetic environment around power lines.


Therefore, it can operate on live lines, and inspections can be performed without affecting the transmission of electricity. The UKZN researchers are also developing a splice resistance sensor, and a device for sensing the loss of steel core within conductors. Each robot has four high-resolution cameras, built for outdoor lighting conditions, and which deliver highly detailed images. The cameras can move around line hardware to obtain different views of the line.


The technology has been patented in the USA and South Africa by UKZN’s technology transfer office, UKZN InQubate, which is working with Dr Lorimer to commercialise the technology and leverage more developmental funding. The technology has attracted seed funding of approximately R1.8 million from the 


Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) for automation development and building a prototype, as well as from the KZN Department of Economic Development, Tourism, and Environmental Affairs’ Technology Transfer Fund for live-testing of the robot on energized lines.


Dr Lorimer indicated he was pleased that the developments on the PLIR will be advanced through the TEPSCO engagement leading to international commercialisation of the technology.
UKZN InQubate Director, Ms Suvina Singh, said “This deal with the Japanese, which is a leader in technology innovations, is validation of the cutting-edge research that UKZN undertakes”.