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Facebook made a robot that crawls on power lines to install fiber optic cables

Will this become the new standard for fiber optic cables?

facebook fiber cable laying robot wrapping cable around an overhead power cable
Image: Facebook Connectivity

Whatever your opinion of Facebook as a company, they do create some pretty cool engineering projects. One of those is a robot that can install fiber optic internet cables around existing overhead power cables, making those cables easier to deploy.

See, the normal way to distribute fiber optic cables is underground, partly because the glass fibers are easier to damage when exposed to the elements.

That means every fiber optics project is ridiculously expensive, having to dig trenches through the cities, lay the cable, then filling those trenches back in, to say nothing about getting usage rights to go through the multiple layers of land ownership those trenches go through.

Facebook’s Bombyx robot does things differently, by wrapping the fiber over power cables. It’s an autonomous robot that crawls over medium-voltage power lines, and like the silkworm that it takes its name from, install 0.6 miles of cable about every 90 minutes.

In its current state, Bombyx still needs a remote operator to guide it around obstacles like insulators or anything else attached to the power cables. Eventually, machine vision will fill that role, letting the robot continually wind cable without needing intervention.

Facebook also had to figure out a weight issue with the usual fiber optic cable used for aerial installation. It managed this by dropping the internal cable count to 24, from the usual 96, and made a new cladding from braided Kevlar. It’s also heat-resistant, so it won’t be stretched or melted by the temperatures that power lines can reach, something that is an issue with the normal fiber optic cables.

It seems that the Bombyx robot is part of the partnership that Facebook entered into with broadband startup NetEquity Networks at the beginning of 2020. At that time, Facebook said the first deployment would be “in two years.” It’s not clear if that schedule has slipped due to the pandemic at this time, so we expect an announcement at some point in 2022.

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