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The Lowly Utility Pole Receives Some IoT Attention

May 08, 2018

The lowly utility pole is getting some time in the Internet of Things (IoT) spotlight. Ameren and technology vendor Atomation are testing IoT sensors on utility poles at a site in Champaign, Illinois. The main objective is to discover how the pole-mounted sensors could help lower maintenance costs and shorten repair response times.

How Does IoT Help with Utility Poles?

The project focuses on two sensor designs, one developed by Atomation that can be nailed to the side of a wooden pole, and the other by Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) that can be attached to the top of the pole, to cross-arms, or to lines. The idea is to give the pole a bit of a brain, so when it leans too much or topples, the sensor could send an alert along with vital information to the utility’s headend.

For instance, a downed pole could let the utility know its precise location, size, and the number of cross-arms. A repair crew could then be dispatched directly to that exact location and be prepared with the needed equipment, reducing time and eliminating the need for a second trip to fetch parts.

The Ameren project—still in its early phase—calls for the installation of 15 pilot sensors on utility poles in Champaign. Ameren officials are hopeful the trial will prove beneficial to operations, but they need clear evidence the sensors provide tangible ROI benefits before moving ahead with a broader rollout.

The Internet of Power Poles?

In Australia, network provider Meshnet is promoting a similar use case for utility poles. The startup has developed solar-powered devices that operate over a proprietary wireless network. Once installed on poles, the devices can detect tiny movements and send signals to a utility that a pole needs servicing or replacing.

The company is also considering adding temperature, humidity, wind velocity, atmospheric pressure, and rain sensors to devices installed every 2.5 km on power poles to provide more granular weather data to a system. The company has yet to announce any deals with utilities, but it claims those are close. Perhaps with enough sensors and data flowing it could help create the Internet of Power Poles.

This Use Case Is Just One Example of IoT Potential

Though both efforts are more experimental at this stage, they do point out how new and more affordable IoT technologies can reshape the value proposition for something as common as a utility pole. Sensors and communications modules are now quite cheap compared to just a few years ago. So are prices for computing power needed for analyzing all the data new IoT connections produce, especially when using a cloud service such as Amazon Web Services or Azure.

This type of experimentation also demonstrates how legacy equipment can be brought into the connected digital world to create greater business value, not just for utilities but for many other industries. This is also discussed in Guidehouse Insights’ Industrial Internet of Things report. Sometimes the value derives not from the shiny new object, but lies instead in retrofitting the durable old one.