Made-in-Calgary robot designed to bolster bird safety at power lines

A made-in-Calgary solution from a group of ex-oilpatch workers to curb power line bird deaths has attracted international attention.

Patrick Arnell, CEO of FulcrumAir, a local robotics and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) solutions company, says his company has worked closely with AltaLink over two years to develop LineFly, an automated method for installing bird flight diverters.

“The traditional method of installing bird flight diverters has been with a helicopter and a lineman or a bucket truck. There was risk associated with the old method,” he said. “The helicopters and the linemen were operating very close to the wire environment. This is an automated method for taking some risk out of the system.”

Arnell said he and a lot of his team began their careers in the oil and gas industry, and following an industry downturn, Fulcrum Air was founded in 2016.

“Calgary is abundant with very talented engineers. The machines are entirely designed and engineered in Calgary by our teams from scratch. All the mechanical aspects and the software and the code we’ve written ourselves,” he said.

FulcrumAir CEO Patrick Arnell says the machines are entirely designed and engineered in Calgary from scratch. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

And there has been interest in this product from around the world.

“With our thrust in 2021 being in the United States, we’ve opened our office in Denver, Colorado, and that will be the base for servicing our U.S. customers,” he said. 

“We’ve had some expressions of interest in South Africa, in Chile and in Argentina. We’re just looking at new office space currently to double the size of the space that we have in southeast Calgary. We’re very proud to have manufactured this piece of equipment.

Bird collisions with transmission line wires is primarily associated with bodies of water and waterfowl, according to AltaLink environmental advisor Nikki Heck. 

She said these birds tend to have small wings and larger bodies that make it difficult for them to manoeuvre around the wires.

“So we install these markers on what’s called the overhead shield wire, that’s that upper most wire. Its purpose is to protect the system from lightning damage but it’s also thinner diameter than the conductor wires we use, and so because of that it can often appear invisible to birds, especially in low light conditions.” she said. 

AltaLink environmental advisor Nikki Heck says LineFly is an efficient way to install bird markers in areas that might have otherwise been difficult to get to. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

“These tags really just help act as a warning system so that they can see that wire better and avoid a collision, and so we wanted to find ways that we could automate the installation of bird markers.”

Arnell says LineFly, a fully autonomous robot, is remotely controlled from support vehicles that are up to a kilometre and a half away. 

“The unmanned coaxial mini-helicopter picks the LineFly up and places it on the overhead power transmission wire and begins to advance, automatically placing the bird flight diverters at any predetermined distance,” he said.

LineFly can install between 300 and 600 bird flight diverters per day.

“It’s a really efficient way that we can install bird markers in areas that might have otherwise been really difficult to get a bucket truck in, like say over top of a water body or say like a steep coulee, where a helicopter isn’t able to access,” said Heck. 

The LineFly can install between 300 and 600 bird flight diverters per day. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

The diverters are generally installed in areas that are believed to be higher risk for birds, and Arnell says studies have shown them to be at least 50 per cent effective and upward of 90 per cent effective in some situations. 

“One way to think about this is if you save the birds, you keep the lights on because some of these interactions can actually have reliability impacts,” he said.

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