Cameras Perch On Power Lines, Steal Electricity

[Tim] let us know about a video outlining some covert camera devices the Air Force is developing (dead link, try the Internet Archive version). The video takes a lot of time to explain induction to those who’ve never heard of it but we liked to see the bird-like concept animations. They’ve already developed cameras that will clamp on to power lines in order to use induction as a power source. Shown in the video is an eight-rotor quadcopter they’re hoping to use to deliver the camera covertly. But the animations show a winged robot similar to a hawk that has a camera for a head. Having seen some of the other flying devices in development this may not actually be that far off.

74 thoughts on “Cameras Perch On Power Lines, Steal Electricity

  1. One of the local drug cops once showed me a surveillance device that has been used for several years: a camera setup disguised as a transformer cylinder. They get the telco to install it and can monitor it remotely with ease.

  2. I’m not sure, but here in Spain i have seen lights in high power lines near the airport using induction. At first time I see, i thought that it was connected to the power line, but it was a 400.000 Volts line. So i think that the idea of stealing electricity by induction isn’t new. But the spy bird is cool and frightening, isn’t it?

  3. There’s a couple issues at play here:

    1. These devices do steal electricity from the power company.

    2. More importantly, power lines are designed to carry a certain weight load (that of the lines themselves) for a set amount of time (typically measured in decades) and in all sorts of weather, also taking heat expansion into account. Attaching these devices to the power lines throws off these calculations, and would likely mean the power lines themselves will have to be replaced more frequently.

    1. I’m sure they allow for organic birds landing on the wires, as well as snow etc, when they specify them. A couple of freaky micro spy-planes shouldn’t be too much wear on the wires.

  4. Ha! I suggested this to a professor where I went to school who was working with UAV’s seriously like 5 years ago. He said it wouldn’t work. Obviously, it would and does. PhD doesn’t mean jack squat.

  5. Maybe it’s because I like birds, but I tend to notice a bump on neighborhood power lines.
    It’ll need to be pretty lifelike to fool the average observer.

    I also like to suggest the guys in the video to remove their wedding rings when working with induction technology.

  6. not new concept. an collapsible plane with 1 meter wing span was rumored on several years ago. I usually discard rumors but photo of this one was looking exactly as piece of junk I saw two months before hanging on 110kV power line. it had wings and propeller and it looked kinda broken.

    the next day it was gone. I guess it does not need long time to recharge.

    I see induction powered eight-rotor quadcopter remote cameras as another assault on our collective anus privatus =P

    1. The local RC plane club I fly at has power lines running straight across the field. Plenty of people have flown into them and all that gets wrecked is the planes. Those lines aren’t thin.

  7. 1. Not all power lines are AC.

    2. They never show a good way to get the devices on the line. They show that flying vehicle but not in action. It would be near impossible to install without hitting a power lines.

    3. You could just as easily use a small solar panel on a roof top next to your device.

    4. This would would be illegal to install anywhere.

  8. Actually, considering some of the turns of speed and maneuverability, they’re getting in ultralight fliers these days, a landing on power lines wouldn’t be that hard, Bob. Just poke around on here, and you’ll see what I mean. A solar panel, while effective, would be way too heavy for the weight to power ratio to allow it. And while such a device might be illegal to place on our home soil, what about most any developed nation? As long as it’s outside our borders, we’re basically in the clear.

  9. “As long as it’s outside our borders, we’re basically in the clear.”

    But it won’t be, and we’re not in the clear. This shit scares me and I hope the technology flops (or our gov does a 180… yeah right).

  10. Every time I see a video or article of some(relatively) simple .gov espionage device such as this, I ask myself, “why would the military disclose this?” I usually guess they either aren’t planning on using it, or they already have something better and the disclosure is a distraction to the enemy. .gov has to expect the enemy will see this. Anyone have some insight?

    1. But it is the 2000s already :-) And we have high voltage semiconductors. There are HVDC power lines. Really high voltages for long distance lines. AC has inductive and capacitive losses (which this spy planes tap). But probably the agencies now, which lines are suitable. And if not, they can just try: Plane gets no power: find next possibility. Plane gets power: It’s OK. :-) It is just bad, if the thing is really empty. As bad as coming to a gas station with the last drop and find it closed.

  11. George Orwell just flinched in his grave. Hasn’t rolled over yet but getting damn close. Does any one else have fantasies about taking out those cameras on the road with a sniper rifle, or is it just me?

  12. @John smith The majority are but not all. HVDC lines are becoming more common especially in Europe for grid improvements to help with transferring energy from renewable sources across long distances.

    The flaw to this though is how many overhead power lines do you see in areas you would want surveillance. Surely most are underground in urban areas.

  13. Yeah every new power lines in cities are underground and previous installed lines get buried gradually.
    Most of the visible power lines and the most difficult to burry are very high voltage ones, those you can see in the fields, I think this spying project is the best way to get top secrets information about farmers and cereals, for sure! ;-)

  14. In the age of renewable energy the AirForce thought it would be a better idea to develop a mechanical bird that steals it from them.

    Great concept! Lets all make em and steal from each other! Protect your property! Duckuduuu!

  15. I could almost see this being on a future episode of Burn Notice. Michael Westen’s voiceover would be something like the following:

    “When you’re doing covert surveillance, you need three things: A pair of thick gloves, some heavily insulated boots, and a good knowledge of physics.”

  16. I have to agree wirh Marzuess here. Those things aren’t taking electricity from the lines, they are using the EM-Field around the wire to produce their own electricity.

  17. Yes they are actually taking power from the lines. These would show up as line losses for the power company. There are farmers in Europe that apparently used induction to steal power from high tension lines. Power companies would do fly overs with helicopters to find them.

  18. They will need to get the weight down in size for the actual induction devices. I can’t imagine the utilities would be happy at people placing more weight on the lines. It is stealing power so there could be some legal ramifications since few places have lines running through the air that are already metered.

    I wonder if they considered combining this with broadband over power line ? Now that would be the ultimate drop on the line camera.

  19. If you want to experiment with induction power it is really easy to do. Get some 28AWG wire and wrap it as a coil around something like a lamp cord. You need quite a few loops around the cord .Connect a meter to the coil wires and turn on the lamp. Be careful doing this as it can generate quite a bit of power depending on design.

    1. If you wind one wire around the other you theoretically have no mutual inductivity at all. The wires have to be parallel and the core has to be around. You will just get some small capacity coupling.

  20. My uncle (a retired phone Co. lineman) told me about an old farmer that powered his entire house from a giant coil in his shed. Under the high tension lines. The power company tried to fine him in court, but the law stated that he had to be physically tied to the line, and his shed was obviously 50 ft away. He got over on them. But they made sure afterwards that their easement extended far enough that others couldn’t pull that trick.

  21. Just to clear up a few things for people having issues with this:

    This is being developed by the US Air Force. Odds are, it’s NOT for domestic use. Even if it would be used state-side, it wouldn’t be illegal – it’s the US government. As long as they have a warrant or a purpose for surveilling somebody, it would be no different than having a guy in a panel van sitting across the street.

    This has a very practical application in covert intelligence overseas. Think that a drug cartel or terrorist cell is operating out of some dingy warehouse in say Somalia or Colombia? Fly a conveniently disguised camera on to a power line nearby, and nobody would suspect a thing. Just because the “bird” doesn’t move for a few days doesn’t mean that it’ll arouse suspicion. People would never think to look there. A small amount of power loss would occur, but it would go unnoticed unless you had an entire flock sitting there. Besides, once they had a few days worth of footage, the “bird” would just take off.

    I think this is a great idea because the only way it can be disabled is if the power goes out completely or somebody knows it’s there and removes it. If they remove it, then you have the evidence you need to know that something fishy is going on. I doubt this will be its final form anyways, it’s more of a concept project that will find its way into another form.

    And to all you conspiracy nuts, there’s no need to be afraid of covert surveillance unless you’re doing something illegal. I know Big Brother is probably watching a lot of the moves I make, but I have nothing to fear because I’m not doing anything illegal. And if you are doing something illegal, well now you know one more thing that you’ll have to keep an eye out for.

    1. “evidence something fishy” – no. You just have the evidence, somebody noticed it and did not like it.

      You do not need to make evil plans to not like being under surveillance. It is not normal and shall not become normal to tolerate excessive surveillance.

  22. @mostlymac I am indeed at all times doing several illegal things, and so are you buddy trust me, open a law book, close your eyes pick a page and on that random page there probably will be something you are infringing against, especially since many laws are in fact in direct conflict with eachother.

  23. mostlymac, the comment about not having anything to fear unless you are doing something wrong is again and again shown to be wrong. I personally don’t want the government to watch me having sex with my girlfriend – it’s not illegal for me to do it, but all the same, I’d rather not have the government watching.

    What if I’m legally publishing information that “Big Brother” would rather have me not publish? Just because it’s legal for me to do so doesn’t mean Big Brother won’t make my life difficult for it.

    The technology itself is cool though – I’m excited to see induction gaining more traction. It’s an old technology (from Tesla) but it’s still wicked awesome.

  24. Wouldn’t it be smarter to have a very low power camera, and then being able to place it some distance away from the power lines and still be able to draw enough power? Then you wouldn’t have to be physically clamped to a high power line that you have no business being on. Otherwise, you might as well get permission from the power company to install your device into the power grid and draw power from them for police surveillance purposes.

  25. @mostlymac

    Please immediately post your bank details, credit card details, your home address, telephone number, kids names and school, etc.

    You’ve “Nothing to hide, so Nothing to fear”, right?

  26. I think it’s kinda cool.

    As for being unconstitutional, I thought we had all agreed (the supporters of bush, obama, paul, etc) that the constitution and bill of rights didn’t actually apply whenever technology was involved.

    Every state – and I mean every state – has laws that allow the police, the feds, and others (basically anyone with the money or political clout) to have real-time access to your cellphone, telephone and internet logs, plus whatever they can pull from your credit report and public records. As often as they want. Every facebook entry, every twitter, every google search. By the way – the record is permanent.

    GW was right – it’s just a piece of paper. Ya’ll lost that fight in 1865, but we keep pretending otherwise to keep up appearances.

  27. I’d like to apologize for commenting about conspiracy theories, free speech, etc., etc. This is a technology blog, not a constitutional rights discussion forum. If I was a government censor, I’d redact my comment :) As such, I’m refraining from responding to any further comments about this. I’m trying to keep the focus on the technology at hand.

    With that being said, let’s get back to technology. Since this concept can be applied anywhere that inductance is present, why limit it to just aerial lines? I could see this is as a very practical approach for robots that latch on to (the few) underwater power lines out there. You wouldn’t have to bother with a big battery or fuel cell weighing it down and it would be able to stay down there indefinitely, running tests of the water and monitoring the condition of the submarine cable.

    1. More prosaicaly, you can still order DC power service in New York City (and Con Ed is still obligated to provide it). It’s mostly only used in very old elevators, and if you order new service you’re almost certainly going to get AC service and a big switching power supply these days, but every once in a while you run into some amazingly old stuff. Worth remembering for one reason: if you check it with a multimeter on an AC setting, it’ll show up as zero. Neon testers (or the old Square D probe meters) will keep you alive longer in NYC, and it gets drilled into young electricians’ heads early and often.

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