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Wireless Sensors To Monitor Power Grids 72

Roland Piquepaille writes "Major power outages like the ones which affected the New York state last month or Western Europe ten days ago are becoming more frequent — even if their causes were different. In some cases, the utility companies have to dispatch electricians all over the place to discover the cause of the power failure or simply to restore power. Engineers at the University of Buffalo think they have a better solution: deploy wireless 'nanotech' sensors to monitor the networks and to find the exact location of a failure. They also say that even if the technology is almost available, several years of research are necessary before such a solution can be used by electrical companies. Read more for additional details about this attractive solution."
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Wireless Sensors To Monitor Power Grids

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  • by cmburns69 ( 169686 ) on Wednesday November 08, 2006 @07:40PM (#16777557) Homepage Journal
    ... But what happens when the batteries die?
  • Nanotech? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by SultanCemil ( 722533 ) on Wednesday November 08, 2006 @07:41PM (#16777569)
    Why nanotech? Power infrastructure isn't exactly tiny. Why not just normal wireless sensors? Buzzword much...?
  • Hope they run on battery!
  • by User 956 ( 568564 ) on Wednesday November 08, 2006 @07:45PM (#16777593) Homepage
    One of the many implications for the developing nanotech sensors is their ability to pinpoint the exact location of a power outage

    I'll give you a hint. It's the area where nobody seems to be able to use any electrical equipment.
  • Tag this as blogspam (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 08, 2006 @07:47PM (#16777613)

    and call its by its name

    Read more for additional details []

    or perhaps Roland is a script ? from the google search results it seems it just copies large chunks of other peoples articles and presents them on an advertising laden website and intersperses them with 20 word linking statements

    should take about 5min for a perl programmer to replicate this Roland script
  • I was wondering the same thing. I skimmed the article but wasn't able to discern any particular reason why they would need to be nanosensors. Why couldn't we have some of Cassandra's mechanical spiders from the new Doctor Who series? Seems to me that those would work just fine, and you could fit a 9 volt battery in them, solving that problem!
  • by shawnce ( 146129 )
    IIRC these little guys feed off of animal flesh to keep themselves charged.
  • Bah (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ErikTheRed ( 162431 ) on Wednesday November 08, 2006 @08:01PM (#16777771) Homepage
    For all of the technical details given in either article, they might as well propose monitoring the lines with an army of fairies that communicate using magic pixie dust, deployed via unicorns.
  • by whoop ( 194 )
    Good point! "They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security" is what I always say.
  • Wireless? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by frieza79 ( 947618 ) on Wednesday November 08, 2006 @08:09PM (#16777843)
    what about wired sensors? The infrastructure is already in place. When the sensors stop sending data, the power must be down at that location. It would be easy to map out which sensors arent responding.
  • You *do* realize they're on power lines, right?
  • They dont have to last too long. Just long enough to figure out where the fault is.
  • When the batteries die, the "picotech" sensors on the nano-power-grids will send out warnings to the electric company...

    Until their batteries die, that is...
  • Batteries? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by MD_Willington ( 967885 ) on Wednesday November 08, 2006 @08:19PM (#16777939)
    Inductive charging works fine, put the unit on the line... Check EOS manufacturing: []
  • Sure, you would not want to power small devices straight from 400kV or whatever power lines, but it is very easy to get smaller voltages off a power line using corona charging currents etc.
  • by krnpimpsta ( 906084 ) on Wednesday November 08, 2006 @08:35PM (#16778115)
    The article keeps referring to these sensors as nanotechnology.. since when were 2-3 inch devices considered "nanotech?"
  • They want to "Pinpoint" the exact location...nanotech is as small as a pinpoint, so it will do just that. Or maybe they meant micro-tech.
  • by mcrbids ( 148650 ) on Wednesday November 08, 2006 @08:43PM (#16778223) Journal
    So I was reading this magazine called "Optimize". It's one of those freebie trade rags where you simply have to sign up as a "CTO / CIO" to get, along with about 5 lbs of junk mail every day.

    Anyway, I was reading about so-called "autonomic computing" with "dynamic resource allocation" and "self-healing capabilities". It was this fluffy, buzzword-laden stuff that just didn't quite dig with me.

    Just when I thought that there might actually be something here for me to look into, I noticed an example and jumped on it.

    The example was of an "enterprise" backup that had to be done nightly, and some tech weenie had to remote in at 1:00 AM every night to check disk space and kick off the backup. How did they do it the autonomic way? Well, they set up a background scheduler that would automatically check for disk space and start the process!

    Yep, that's right. A cron job that did about 5 lines of shell scripting. WTF?

    This sounds to be just as buzzword laden and content poor. I've come to conclude that the number of buzzwords used to describe a particular application are inversely proportional to the substance of said application.
  • Because you cannot extract research grants by proposing to install, say, a bunch of old galvanometers or something?

    On the same note, the biologists can cure Cancer, HIV, hepatitis, Parkinsons', and the spinal cord injuries. Well, the "technology is almost available", but we need some money and a few years to complete the research...
    Which is actually true.
  • by Ant P. ( 974313 )
    I always thought he sounded artificial... but damn, you're right.
  • i am not an electrical engineer. my question may be simple but implementation may be difficult.

    the blackouts that happen are mostly cascaded effects with one circuit overloading and all others tripping and everybody has no power. is there any way of limiting the tripping to just a particular area or circuit instead of tripping the entire system? or there are systems in place to avoid that (which i believe is likely) but it doesn't work as planned? it always confuses me why a small problem causes huge di
  • I wouldn't worry about it, I'm sure they're just trying to boast.
  • This is new? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Mousit ( 646085 ) on Wednesday November 08, 2006 @08:55PM (#16778381)
    As someone who works in the electrical power industry I can say, yeah, we have wireless sensors already. Hell, we have wired sensors too, because there's all these big frickin' wires already running all over the place anyway, don'tcha know!

    > ...One of the many implications for the developing nanotech sensors is their ability to pinpoint the exact location of a power outage...

    Uh.. we also have such technology already, and in fact it's quite old. The same signal reflectors that are in a LAN cable tester and tell you the length of a cable, are used on an industrial scale to tell you where the end of a power line is. Program the monitor with "this line is 9,374 feet long" and it sees "8,124 feet long" then it can, in fact, tell you exactly where the break is, right down to the foot! Now, these industrial grade units are highly expensive (partly by their shear power and range, because I'm grossly underestimating; line lengths can reach over 20 continuous miles), so it MIGHT be news if these little "nano" buggers are cheap and plentiful but can still do the job.

    Virtually every piece of equipment we have on the line has remote monitoring capability. Now, whether the power companies are USING it is another matter, because of cost and infrastructure and such. My own company has substations we have no remote monitoring on, just because they were deemed low priority enough to not spend money on enabling it. So needing to send crew door-to-door to find a downed line or a damaged power box is just not necessary (though barring major disasters, it can be cheaper than installing all that remote monitoring equipment).

    The one thing I do see in the "additional details" article is the idea of using these things, because they're so small, to monitor every single home and business on the grid. That's something we don't currently do, mostly for cost reasons. We can see a neighborhood is down, but not a house. THAT would be news worthy I suppose. Otherwise, I see nothing in this article that is new, just "we've made it smaller!" and they therefore tacked the "nano" buzzword onto it and acted like it was the first time anyone ever created such a device.
  • by Cylix ( 55374 )
    That really doesn't work that well...

    I called the power company once and I said the power was out due a transformer blowing.

    I said, I just watched the transformer produce some fairly nice fireworks and they might want to come fix it.

    The lady told me as soon as they could find the transformer they would take care of it.

    I had to repeat myself, I just watched it blow... would you like the address?

    At that point she realized I wasn't calling in to complain, but rather report the location.

    Nah, they really do need
  • Is battery nano too? There's no valuable information in the articles at all. As far I know, wireless sensors aren't that small, and battery makes them very bulky. If they are using some new technology, where's proof?

    Who's gonna change battery in nano device?
  • A system in British Columbia already exists..

    Sensors with GPS units (used for their accurate timers) are placed on various different towers and connected via radio. They detect power spikes resulting from a line breaking / lightning hitting. Based on the times recorded when the spike passes over the two closest towers, the exact position of the fault can be deduced. If it's a break, a crew is sent out to repair the damage. In the case of a lightning strike, line switches can be signaled to disengage on
  • Actually that would be a strong indicator.

    When the power fails the devices stop monitoring volatage/ amperage, but also stop transmitting. The equipment you use to monitor all the transmitters would record which devices failed first, and that's where you start., combine that with a couple of databases, and an overlay map of the area, and you can literally watch the power fail, and where you need to go to get started. The final signals would give a clue as to what happened. with various voltage current,
  • well, it could work with lots of tiny computers powered from the grid, and just have them ping'd every so often... reply, no power (or some other problem)
  • I work on this area of wireless sensors (see for lots of cool stuff).
    These are certainly NOT "nanotechnology". In my experience, PR people like to tack on the "nano-" prefix to anything that is small.
    At my research group at Harvard, we did a press release on our use of wireless sensors for monitoring volcanoes, and the PR guys
    used the term "nanotechnology" in the same way. I pointed out to them that this was not technically correct...
  • It's a tradeoff between efficiency and reliability. The most economical way to make use of all that expensive equipment is to run it near capacity. But leaving a margin of safety allows for fault tolerance.

    I've wondered why the utilities don't respond to overload by doing controlled load shedding. There are several possible reasons..
  • by OrangeTide ( 124937 ) on Wednesday November 08, 2006 @09:56PM (#16779057) Homepage Journal
    Many areas of California have sensors deployed that run their health status over the powerlines themselves. making them "wirefree" (although not wireless as in radio). But these are not "nano", nor are they used to detect dangerous storms. They just sit on the pole and tell the power company if they need to send someone out to repair an issue. they do detect more than just power outage problems, enabling the power company to keep a high quality of service in remote regions. surprisingly this was done as a cost cutting measure, and has been successful. I wonder if a hall effect transistor or something on each "node" would let it detect storms without having to use some cutting edge technology as proposed in the article.
  • Well, Pixie dust is pretty useful when paired with Debian Linux...

  • Roland's blogging on ZDNet's payroll [] now.

    I wonder if he used "250+ submissions accepted on Slashdot []" as a bullet point on his resume...

    And for those who don't know the backstory, Roland Piquepaille and Slashdot [] will fill you in.
  • by sporkme ( 983186 ) *
    My thoughts exactly. The article makes it sound like mass chaos when a section of the grid fails. One would believe that they have tens of thousands of poor bastards checking lines inch by inch trying to figure out which transmission station had a moth fly into it. This is really more of an upgrade or modernization to existing systems, and if it aint broke what the hell are they trying to fix?

    Energy costs are a constant in the headlines. Fluctuate the price a penny per unit in either direction and the
  • the blackouts that happen are mostly cascaded effects with one circuit overloading and all others tripping and everybody has no power. is there any way of limiting the tripping to just a particular area or circuit instead of tripping the entire system? or there are systems in place to avoid that (which i believe is likely) but it doesn't work as planned? it always confuses me why a small problem causes huge disruptions (been in that situation a lot of times.) the behavior appears that there is just one circ

  • Not In Europe (Score:2, Informative)

    by andersh ( 229403 )
    The European power outage has nothing to do with this article since the "network became overloaded possibly because it shut down the transmission line over the river".

    Link []

  • TXU is supposed to deploy broadband over its power lines to 70 percent of its system. Why not just figure out a way to use this to see where the power went out. Put some devices at specific points that can be pinged, or make it a routed network and use traceroute to see how many routers it goes through. When the stuff that is supposed to be working, isn't, that is where the problem is.

    The plus side is, they can fire a bunch of meter readers, have the above troubleshooting added...and they can sell the servi
  • by Mutiny32 ( 932593 ) on Wednesday November 08, 2006 @11:00PM (#16779653)
    And they already do this via microwave and radio. More specifically, they monitor a lot of their substations and large important objects via a telecom link and have RF or microwave transmitters as a backup. I worked for the department that monitored the transmission and distribution of power and I got to see exactly how their entire monitoring system for their entire grid works. Every point in their grid that can cause havoc is monitored in real-time (4 second interval). I don't exactly see what this article is getting at. In fact, this kind of monitoring is a FERC requirement. While not on a scale of what this article is saying, they can already pinpoint outages to the closest substation or transformer.
  • by Feyr ( 449684 )
    i dont know about the rest of the world, but up here in the Great White North (Quebec, Canada), hydro already runs one of the largest fibre network in the country. their network is monitored remotely and trends tracked.

    when an outage occur, they can order the breaker back on remotely. which they are required to do only once. if it shut out again, there's a physical problem (read, tree branch on the line :) and they'd have to dispatch a tech anyway.

    i know ontario has a similar system

    why exactly do we need wi
  • From the article: "They would replace the huge transistors currently in use that are at least four feet tall and wide."

    If we instead assume that common transistors are, on the order of 1 micrometer in size (1000 nanometers), then this simply means they are off by a factor of a mere 1.2 million. So if we correct their units and divide a 3 inch device by this, then it would clearly qualify as nanotechnology!
  • by LordEd ( 840443 )
    Um.... so if the line fails, where does it get its power from to notify of the failure?
  • It must be just me--but I thought the article was an excellent example of lots of words not saying anything at all. As someone pointed out already, they talk about devices 2-3 inches big as "nano technology." But the incomprehensibility doesn't stop there! They also use this "nanotechnology sensor" interchangeably with "transistor." But wait! There is more... somehow this technology applies to refrigerators and other appliances (although the article doesn't even begin to explain how).

    Perhaps the arti

  • Step 1: Jump on a big headline
    Step 2: Use the word nano an awful lot
    Step 3: Come up with an outrageous bill and say you need political support

    "The necessary research must be completed, four to five years, at (a cost of) five to six million dollars per annum here at UB," Sarjeant said.

    Check out the USA's flagship neutron scattering facility [], which will churn out hundreds of scientific papers per year and put the USA at the front of materials science, on real science at the atomic scale (not inches, Sar

  • A friend in the local power industry told me about a cool way in which the location of a break in a high-voltage line can be determined fairly cheaply. They use the GPS system to synchronize an incredibly-accurate clock at each end of the line. When the line breaks, the drop in voltage travels along the line from the break to the terminals at the speed of light. The clocks are precise enough that, by looking at the relative times when the voltage drop reaches the terminals, they can determine where the b
  • Nope.
    The primary cause was overload of the network due to excess production of wind energy. In Germany the wind turbine operators are allowed to pump all the electrcity into the net that they can produce and the utilities are compelled by law to deal with it. Overloads will become more frequent as more and bigger turbines are brought online. The latest multi-megawatt turbines can produce electricity relatively economically but they are not so economical if one includes the hidden costs of compensating for t
  • ...but not using nanotech. Instead organizations who buy and sell electrical power pay people, like farmers, who have power lines running through their land to locate a sensor near the line to detect whether power is running or not. The obvious advantage to this is that if a known line that is connected to a known power generator is not running then they can bid up prices at another power generator.
  • The primary cause was overload of the network due to..

    Did you read the linked article? The same news was written in newspapers all over Europe. Even my quote says it was "possibly" the cause.

    Regardless of the cause it is still not a case for extensive monitoring of the network. My point was that the Americans have problems identifying where their problems begin - in Germany and Europe that does not seem to be the case.

    P.S. Thanks to Deutsche Welle TV I know a little about the German windpower issues. Howeve

    • I admit not having read the linked article. I have now and didn't see anything new. The statement that excessive wind power was probably a primary factor was made the next day by Marcel Bial, head of the UCTE (transmission coordinators), however the detailed analysis is still ongoing and the final report will be issued in a fortnight.
      For me this was an opportunity to draw attention to the widespread misconception that all forms of solar electricity production are equal in the sense that they only work when

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