HomeThis Cage-covered Drone Is Ready To Take Flight In ComEd’s Drone Program

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This spring ComEd announced it was the first utility company in the US approved by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones, and Illinois Institute of Technology would be the project partner.

After a few months of paperwork (which project coordinator and IIT mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Matthew Spenko said he anticipates will go a lot quicker as the FAA continues to streamline drone regulations) the drone is ready to take flight in ComEd’s drone program.

What makes IIT’s drone special is the thin circular frame attached to either side of the craft. It sort of looks like if Ikea designed monster truck wheels– the frame evokes both minimalist design and Star Wars fighter spacecrafts. Aesthetic design aside, the functionality of the cage is what sets IIT tech apart. The protective casing allows the drone to be terrestrial and airborne — an efficiency and flexibility necessary given ComEd is aiming to send these drones to check on power lines in dense brush and waterlogged areas. It also alludes to uses far beyond power line maintenance.

In the video above, you can see the craft hover at tree level, lithely land, and roll at a steady clip over grassy bumps.

The ability to roll on the ground and fly in the air has a two-fold benefit, said Spenko.

“The vast majority of the energy [drones] use is spent hovering,” he said. “You take that away, put that energy into going forward, you can increase your range five to seven times.”

“If you think of it as an terrestrial robot, if you come across an obstacle you just fly over it,” he added.

In the ComEd project, the drones will be used to take photos and videos of transmission and power lines in hard to reach areas. Spenko said the initial tests, which likely will start later this month, will mostly be done in remote areas (“you won’t see them this summer flying around your window”).

“Eventually, this could really automate this process,” Spenko said. “It lets us send up this drone, and just say go. It hits every location and it does so automatically, autonomously, without a human operator.”

This could be helpful in the case of post-storm damage assessment, he pointed out.

The caged drone was a design study in Spenko’s lab, what he calls a “stepping stone” to creating a robot that could fly, perch on a vertical wall, and move on that vertical wall. This is a chance to test some of that tech in the field.

“We can come up with the idea, but what we really want to see is how they are used in the real world,” he said.

That being said, the drone still needs licensed pilots, who will need also need to be trained to drive drones on the ground. Spenko also acknowledged public apprehension of drones, but pointed out that in order to work effectively drones need good, clear conditions to do their best work. The pilot program is an opportunity to test how the tech performs in Illinois.

“I think the public does not realize the limitations sometimes of what robots can do,” he said. “We need to start slow.”