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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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