Looking to the skies

Operating and maintaining an electricity network that covers 737,000 square kilometres of landmass with 183,612km of powerline is no easy feat, especially when it requires continuous monitoring and servicing by field employees – a time-consuming and sometimes dangerous task. Essential Energy has tackled the safety and operational challenge by utilising drone technology to manage its vast assets.

Essential Energy builds, operates and maintains one of Australia’s largest electricity distribution networks, servicing more than 855,000 customers across regional, rural and remote NSW, and parts of southern Queensland. Essential Energy’s footprint includes 1.38 million power poles, equating to 1.6 power poles per customer.

Since the first drone trial in 2016, Essential Energy has utilised the technology to access environments or assets which are considered difficult to reach, time consuming or expensive for maintenance inspections. Since then, drone technology has advanced considerably and has enabled Essential Energy to now collect data on thermal imagery, conductor restringing and wind analytics.

A range of applications

Drones fitted with image sensors and thermal sensors have enabled Essential Energy to make observations about high-voltage conductors and low-voltage service connections. The technology can capture multiple datasets in one operation and gives asset inspectors the ability to detect faulty connections on high-voltage conductors or low-voltage services connections. 

Essential Energy is also utilising drone technology during reconductoring practices in areas which contain creeks, rivers and difficult terrain that would normally restrict crews. A small pilot line can be attached to the drone, pulled across the span and draped over the structures where crews are able to attach a large pilot line or conductor and complete the process. 

This process is highly useful in fault and emergency scenarios as it allows crews to complete repairs and restore electricity supply quickly and effectively without the expense of helicopter services.

Essential Energy’s Chief Remote Pilot – Drone Operations, Brendan Tucker, said the technology greatly reduces the restoration time.

“We’re able to get the drone up in the air and move it across the site a lot quicker than it would be to engage a full-sized helicopter. The other advantages are cost efficiency by not costing us thousands of dollars an hour to run a helicopter, plus greatly reducing the risks associated with aerial inspections,” said Mr Tucker.

“Previously, if we had to fly to remote areas, obviously that would result in a considerable cost, but with portable drones, and with numerous operators around the business footprint, we’re able to engage those guys and have remote inspections completed a lot more efficiently.”

The ability to quickly and cost-effectively assess the electricity network is especially important for disaster management such as for bushfires. Mr Tucker said that technology gives them access to the areas which may be inaccessible after an event.

“If we’ve got fallen trees it’s not safe to send crews. Being able to send a drone in, within CASA’s regulations, gives us an insight as to what’s going on there. We can identify and assess any damage to the assets.

“If there’s no damage then obviously we can re-allocate our resources to those areas that have been impacted the most, therefore reducing the outage times.”

The use of drones has also had a positive impact on the safety of Essential Energy’s asset management practices, with employees no longer at risk when observing difficult aspects of the network.

Drone footage quickly highlights the value of this program. A visual inspection of these assets from the ground would indicate the cross-arms are in good condition, but the drone images indicate that’s not the case.

In the area of Live HV Transmission inspections, what previously may take around 40 minutes for Essential Energy to set up and inspect a structure, can now be completed with three minutes utilising a drone.

“We estimate the drone is about 60 per cent more efficient compared with traditional methods of inspecting these structures, and gives an added insight into safety risks,” Mr Tucker said.

“For example, termite damage or cross-arm deterioration may be detected from an aerial drone view that couldn’t be identified from below, so you don’t want line workers on that structure performing any tasks.”

Embracing the new technology

As with any introduction of new technology, there were early adopters and others who took a bit longer to embrace the idea of doing inspections via drones.

“Any initial hesitation towards the technology has turned completely around into enthusiasm and a real understanding of the safety and operational benefits,” Mr Tucker said. 

“A number of asset inspectors are being trained and incorporated into our asset inspection cycle program and we’re working to ensure the capability is extended across the team.

“The perspective offered by the drones gives inspectors a greater understanding of the condition of the assets so at the end of the day, they can make a better decision.”

Where the wind blows

Essential Energy has also used their drones to record a significant amount of data during flight, including flight control analytics, battery health and air pressure. The correlation of the data combined with special software allows the Essential Energy engineers to access an accurate wind profile map for each asset. 

This new capability is particularly useful when determining loadings on a structure, providing a better understanding of the asset environment. Previous data was sourced from airports, which could be up to 100km away from the asset site. The data is then utilised to create an understanding of what the asset life cycle could look like.

“Up around Jindabyne, NSW, we have a high wind area, and a lot of vibration through the line,” said Mr Tucker. “So the data captured by the drone while we’re on site gives us a fuller picture of what’s actually happening there. We are now gaining a better understanding of the different environments that impact our network.”

The data has also been incredibly important when developing new projects and during the construction of infrastructure. “Being able to capture that data straight away for our engineers will be of great use for future projects in the area,” Mr Tucker said.

One of Essential Energy's drones takes flight.
One of Essential Energy’s drones takes flight.

An airborne future

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) is the government body which regulates aviation safety and enforces the current drones’ regulations.

Mr Tucker is confident that regulations governing drone operation will become more flexible in the future, possibly making the use of the technology around the urban environment a viable option. Conducting asset condition evaluations around highly populated areas will ultimately make it easier for asset inspectors to deliver a safer and more reliable network for the community.

“Currently, operating within 30 metres of people presents a safety risk so the current guidelines don’t allow it. That’s not a big deal when we’re dealing with rural feeders, but in the future it would be great to be able to use drones to capture urban feeders as well.

“Once everyone is comfortable that the application of drone technology is safe and reliable, then conducting aerial inspections in the full range of environments will become even more effective, efficient and adopted,” said Mr Tucker.

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