Accelerometers have become a common part of the sensor arrays on smartphones and other devices, but a group that includes Bill Gates is suggesting a different application — putting the motion-sensing devices on power lines to understand how far they move in wind and other conditions, and how close they come to trees and other nearby objects.

Via City of Seattle
Via City of Seattle

In other words, get out those pruning shears!

The approach is outlined in a newly surfaced patent filing that appears to come from one of the regular brainstorming sessions held by Intellectual Ventures, the patent holding and technology development company run by Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft chief technology officer.

The idea is to detect issues with power lines before they cause serious problems. The patent application was filed in November 2012, but made public just last week.

Here’s how the filing explains the problem it’s aiming to solve.

Overhead lines (e.g., transmission lines, power lines, suspended lines, etc.) tend to oscillate back and forth. The oscillations often includes high-amplitude, low-frequency oscillations of the line due to wind. The oscillations occur most often in the vertical plane, although horizontal and rotational motions are also possible. The oscillations of the line cause fatigue problems both within the line and to any structures to which the line is coupled. In the case of power lines, the oscillations add significantly to the stress on coupled insulators and pylons, which raises the risk of mechanical failure of the power system. Additionally, the oscillations can have amplitudes that are sufficient to exceed operating clearances.”

Nathan Myhrvold and Bill Gates at a Gates Foundation event in Seattle.
Nathan Myhrvold and Bill Gates at a Gates Foundation event in Seattle.

Power lines might seem like an odd topic for the Microsoft co-founder to be spending time on, but he has been outspoken on energy-related issues, particularly as they relate to the developing world. He’s also an investor in energy-related ventures, including TerraPower, the Intellectual Ventures spinout developing an alternative nuclear reactor.

Back in the day, Gates and Paul Allen cut their teeth developing a dispatch and scheduling computer system for the Bonneville Power Administration. And Gates last year caused a stir by posting a Facebook picture highlighting the strained power grid in Vietnam.

Contacted by GeekWire, an Intellectual Ventures representative declined to comment on any plans to implement the approach outlined in the patent filing.

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  • http://www.sepharim.com/ Bob Egan

    Interesting, tho I am quite sure not the first such filing. Power companies have studied wire distribution anomalies for many years. Much of that work focusing on the impedance changes which occur that not only wreak havoc on efficiency of the system but also to detect “free loaders” who steal electricity by various methods..

  • Jesse Pollard

    It would seem to be a waste of money.

    It is well known how far power lines can move… before breaking.

    All that is needed is 10% more room for power line, and an additional 10% for the motion of the trees…

    And any tree height that is greater than the radial distance from the tree roots to the power line should be removed.

  • ralphie

    WHAT is new?

    “In order to prevent the transmission line
    dancing, and reduce the loss from the dancing, we developed a remote
    wireless on-line monitor system based on accelerometer sensors. The
    whole system consists of tower monitoring distributed station, wireless
    acceleration sensors node, upper computer software component. In this
    thesis, describes the technical characteristics of the system, and gives
    the structure diagram and partial hardware diagram of the monitoring
    distributed station and wireless nodes, discusses the function of the
    expert software and the calculation method of fitting wire dancing curve
    by acceleration value.

    Published in:

    Power Engineering and Automation Conference (PEAM), 2011 IEEE


  • ralphie

    Nothing new here. only more stolen rehashed ideas from patent troll.

    “We have developed a new method which can the measure movement of
    overhead power lines in the wind. This method uses images from an ITV
    camera system. The sway of the power line is videotaped and analyzed.
    Its measured frequency response to wind is compared to a theoretical
    model and the measurement data obtained from an accelerometer. It is
    found that the new method yield results which are in good agreement with
    those obtained form the theoretical model for frequency response less
    than 0.5 Hz. A tension sensor and an accelerometer have been used to
    verify the theoretical model results. The accelerometer is used to
    obtain the eigenfrequency of sway. However, its results are not precise
    for less than 0.5 Hz. Using both the accelerometer and the new method, a
    method for measuring the frequency response of overhead power lines to
    wind, which was not previously possible, is now available.
    Published in:
    Power Engineering Society 1999 Winter Meeting, IEEE (Volume:2)”

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