Robot wraps fibre-optic cables around existing power lines

Facebook engineers have developed a new robot that winds fibre-optic cable around existing medium-voltage (MV) power lines, enabling the cost-effective expansion of high-speed internet infrastructure.

The robot holds specially designed cables within it which are much thinner and lighter than traditional cables. This allows it to lay up to one kilometre of cable by wrapping it around existing MV lines.

It also has an articulated design allowing it to move over insulators and other impediments on the line without human interaction.

The largest costs associated with building new fibre networks lie within the construction of new poles and other infrastructure that can be largely eliminated with the new robot.

As of 2019, over 70 per cent of the world’s population lives more than 10km from a fibre connection, resulting in lower internet speeds and higher latency.

With the demand for data increasing year-on-year in both developing and developed nations, the robot could help to close this gap in a relatively short time frame and at low cost. Facebook believes it could allow fibre to be deployed “within a few hundred metres of much of the world’s population”.

The cable itself proved to be a significant engineering challenge as traditional fibre cables could be subject to degradation phenomena from the MV lines “such as tracking, partial discharge and dry band arcing”, Facebook said. The MV lines can also reach high temperatures that would melt through traditional cables.

To solve these issues the engineers developed a “specially tailored aramid configuration and a high-strength, high-temperature, track-resistant polymer jacket” that will allow the fibre cables to operate in this hostile environment.

The robot used to lay the cable includes a vision system to identify obstacles and appropriately adjust its movements to clear them, while maintaining the clearances required to prevent an electrical hazard.

Facebook believes each robot should be able to lay between 1.5km to 2km of fibre per day, allowing for rapid rollout of high-speed internet infrastructure.

“We expect the total cost - including labour, depreciation and materials - to be between $2 and $3 per metre in developing countries,” the company said in a blog post.

The idea for the project was realised after one of the engineers saw the relative proliferation of MV power lines in Uganda compared to its scant fibre network. Just 28 per cent of people living in Africa are internet users and two-thirds of those are located in South Africa.

Facebook hopes its new robot could help poorer nations and those living in rural areas achieve much greater access to high-speed internet.

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