Following on from our feature on unmanned aerial vehicles in the last issue of Utility, we take a closer look at how drones, equipped with high quality imagery technology, are providing network owners’ new perspectives of their assets in unprecedented detail.

The concept of unmanned aircraft has been around for decades, with various developments and applications centred on military purposes. In recent years, the technologies have found broader commercial applications including surveillance, asset tracking, and cinematography.

One of the long-running challenges for utility network owners in managing their assets has been finding ways to easily access, survey and inspect their assets and easements, as well as the surrounding areas. By their nature, utility assets can be located just about anywhere, and the ability to thoroughly inspect them can be severely limited by the surrounding geography, environmental considerations and land ownership. It is for these reasons that utility network owners, in conjunction with asset intelligence service providers, such as Select Solutions, have become early adopters of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), by bringing them together with existing inspection technologies and defining processes that allow operators to capture valuable and cost effective high resolution digital imagery, video and thermal imagery.

For many years, utilities have used aerial surveillance and network patrols using helicopters and fixed wing aircraft have been used to supplement ground based inspections. However, flight regulations and limitations, along with prohibitive costs, have restricted the adoption of these services for utility owners under pressure to reduce costs of network maintenance and service to its customers.

In contrast, UAVs, with their low levels of flight altitude, vertical take-off, and high maneuverability, are able to provide detailed imagery from multiple positions to show in detail the condition of the asset or the extent of a defect. UAVs are also far cheaper and more flexible in deployment than aerial surveillance by helicopter or aircraft and are able to be effectively deployed in situations where manned aircraft would not otherwise be of use such as facilities, bridge and water asset inspections and monitoring.

Onboard imagery technology

Combined with image capture technology, practical applications for UAVs have rapidly expanded, and opportunities for further applications are limited only by the weight of available sensors and the payload of the UAV. In current operations UAVs are fitted with a range of devices depending on the intended use including high resolution digital cameras, video cameras, LiDAR imaging units, thermal and infrared camera technology.

Fitted with stability devices such as gimbals and gyroscopes, the UAV operator is able to finesse both the craft and imaging device to capture clear, high resolution imagery that can be explored in detail to understand the condition of the asset.

The technical capability of UAVs varies from unit to unit. As an example, a current unit in operation by Select Solutions to carry out inspections of electricity distribution assets features:

  • Eight independent rotors
  • GPS-stabilised remote controlled operation
  • Vertical take-off and landing
  • Minimum 14 megapixel GPS enabled camera with 20x full HD zoom or 24 megapixel GPS enabled camera with 18-55mm lens
  • High resolution and geo-referenced images
  • Up to 30 minutes flight time
  • Up to 1,000m range of operation (subject to CASA regulations)
  • EMF protection for operation in electrical network environments.

Launching UAV operations

Many organisations who have explored the use of UAVs in their asset management programs have been deterred by the complex regulations and protracted accreditation process through the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) for a UAV Operator’s Certificate. Both UAV pilots and the operating organisation are required to hold accreditation through CASA including the construction of an operator’s manual which can take around 12-15 months and cost more than $25,000-$30,000.

A further barrier for entry is being able to select the most suitable device on the market for your specific needs whilst giving consideration to the speed at which the technology is developing and previous models are becoming obsolete.

Utilities who have been early adopters of this technology have avoided these pitfalls by partnering with accredited service providers who are able to offer a variety of UAV models that are fit for purpose, have an established team of UAV pilots, and can be advisers on the development of internal processes for the UAV program such as criteria for UAV use, scheduling and management controls.

As the development of UAVs continues and further advances are made in the payload, battery life, and flight range of these devices, they will become widely adopted across the utility sector for a growing range of operations including routine asset inspection, vegetation and easement patrols, structural surveying, and inspection of assets on private property.

Australia’s regulatory body, CASA, continues to be a world leader on UAV regulation. The application of UAV for operations “Beyond Visual Line of Sight” will provide real opportunities for exploration of cost-effective UAV operations for longer range easement and linear asset patrol.  Select Solutions is taking an active approach to work with CASA on the development of appropriate regulations for this new frontier in the UAV industry.

Whether it is through video surveillance of pipeline easements, high resolution imagery of electricity poles and wires, LiDAR capture and processing of vegetation clearances, or inspecting the structural integrity of a water reservoir, the progress of UAV development is sure to bring significant advances for utility network owners.

When combined with traditional inspection techniques, UAVs will allow network owners to develop a ‘best of breed’ approach where the inspection method used for each asset is planned based on its location, type and accessibility; resulting in cost savings, mitigation of safety risks wherever possible, increased levels of high quality data capture, and reduced impact to customers.

Michelle is a freelance journalist and editor who, as well as covering all the latest and breaking industry news, is a gun proofreader and editor who never misses a trick.

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