A new system to monitor power lines could be a defense against terrorist attacks on the nation’s infrastructure. Iowa State University Engineering and Computer Science Professor Arun Somani says he’s testing monitors that track the current in wires in the electric “grid,” though ironically, one problem is how to power the gadgets. The power grid carries a very high-voltage supply — you can’t operate a tiny monitor that uses one and-a-half volts of power by tapping into a wire carrying 11-Kilovolts. “That’s a challenge, actually,” Somani says. Battery power or solar cells could be an option to run the “black boxes” while they operate without human supervision. While the “black boxes” send in automated reports by wireless transmission to track power outages, another part of the system would watch for trouble or tampering. While Dr. Somani says the monitors will be a big help to power companies, he also envisions their use as a Homeland Security measure. He suggests using a number of “cheap, tiny cameras” set up like low-budget security cameras along the length of a powerline. Image processing could collect all the pictures and analyze them for changes over time, which will be rare. Even sabotage would be an observable process, as Somani notes; “You just cannot take a power line and cut it in a millisecond.” He has a test system running now, in his laboratory building. Cameras are mounted and he’s doing image-processing to see if surveillance of powerlines would let them detect motion over time, and accurately tell if a powerline’s going down. Somani compares it with technology often used for security systems now, but says automatic image processing will make it possible to monitor hundreds of miles of powerlines without lots of extra employees to survey all the remote camera pictures. You make a program identifying what kind of objects you’re looking for, and what kind of motions you’re looking for. Somani envisions the image-processing technology having applications in other fields as well. He says the utility industry’s been needing a system like this, and he thinks there will be applications in urban areas as well as the large remote areas the wires cross in a rural state like Iowa. By next year he expects to be able to present a demonstration of the technology.
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