by Imogen Hartmann, Journalist

Victorian Power Networks (VPN) (encompassing the CitiPower and Powercor networks) and United Energy (UE) own and operate large electricity distribution networks, totalling over 850,000 poles and more than 800,000km of line. VPN and UE are required to comply with strict regulations governing the design, configuration and environment of their assets as safely and cost-effectively as possible. The LiDAR Lab project is helping achieve both improved safety outcomes and reduced costs by creating a digital map of network infrastructure.

Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) is a surveying method that measures distance to a target by illuminating the target with a pulsed laser light, and measuring the reflected pulses with a sensor, usually from a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft.

In a similar fashion to how radar uses radio waves to measure the distances between objects, LiDAR uses pulsed lasers emitted from an aerial vehicle to create a digital model of the terrain.

VPN and UE previously used an external provider to survey infrastructure from the air and process the data, which would help find areas where vegetation management or other asset maintenance was required. Thereafter, VPN and UE would load the data onto their systems and use the results to inform their work programs.

The LiDAR Lab project saw all LiDAR services moved in-house at the end of 2020 to improve the quality, minimise risks, reduce work hours and costs. A United Energy spokesperson said, “Through the innovative LiDAR Lab project and a dedicated team, we are building new capabilities, while continuing to use the technology to ensure a safe and reliable network, and to meet regulatory obligations.

“Moving LiDAR services in-house has allowed our business to tailor the systems and processes specifically for our networks and affords us the flexibility to rapidly change processes in response to environment changes, regulatory changes or commercial changes that affect our distribution networks.”

  • By having full control of the raw LiDAR data and processing activities, VPN and UE have:
  • Created 3D network models and simulated sag and sway of the conductors under a variety of circumstances
  • Used the LiDAR to improve the spatial accuracy of the poles
  • Measured a range of other clearances, like circuit to circuit, phase to phase and conductor to ground

In December 2020, VPN announced that two new Bell 505 helicopters would be conducting vegetation and powerline inspections, establishing a unique aerial services capability to support Powercor’s annual vegetation management program.

The helicopters are operated by the network’s affiliate business, Beon Aerial Services, will fly above powerlines at just over 300m at a speed of about 130km/h.

They have been fitted with a Riegl sensor system, which uses advanced LiDAR technology to scan for vegetation growing too close to powerlines.

Powercor Head of Vegetation Management, Hugh Vickers-Willis, said bringing Powercor’s air inspections ‘in house’, rather than using external contractors, will deliver significant improvements, including better efficiency, flexibility, safety and data quality.

“By improving our aerial services capability and technology we can further reduce the risk of bushfires and improve network reliability,” Mr Vickers-Willis said.

“The helicopters allow us to have more control over when and where we inspect our networks. For example, we can conduct additional inspections throughout the year, including ahead of the bushfire season in our highest risk areas, or respond quickly if conditions change in a particular part of the network.”

The need for LiDAR surveillance

Because of the risk of bushfires when vegetation comes into contact with powerlines, the impact of not knowing the state of VPN and UE’s network infrastructure could be catastrophic.

LiDAR Lab is driving efficiencies across both VPN and UE. Where manual inspections would normally take over three years to complete, the use of LiDAR can cover the CitiPower, Powercor and United Energy networks in just a few months.

Similarly, outputs from the LiDAR Lab project will be available for other network functions to utilise in order to improve safety, reduce risk, create business efficiencies and drive down costs. The accuracy of data obtained is also much more robust, as LiDAR lasers can measure distances to within 10cm.

VPN and UE’s vegetation management group has previously used manual processes to data cleanse more than 500,000 LiDAR records for use within existing vegetation management systems. Staff would manually run LiDAR records through macro-enabled spreadsheets to correct errors and manage field works.

The LiDAR Lab project eliminates the need for these manual processes and uses machine learning and algorithms instead to streamline the end-to-end process, and by automating these processes the risk of catastrophic errors is much lower.

Vegetation growth prediction algorithms can be used to predict when and where vegetation will encroach into the conductor clearance space years into the future, making VPN and UE’s infrastructure safer, enabling better forecasting of work, reducing the risk of bushfires and saving thousands of valuable work hours.

“The processing of LiDAR data is performed by a series of algorithms running on our cloud analytics platform,” the United Energy spokesperson said.

“We require the elasticity of the cloud infrastructure to process tens of thousands of large LiDAR files in only a few hours.

“The algorithms themselves are very computer intensive as they model the network, determine the measurements, predict the movement of the network and predict the movement of the environment.

“We have a small but very skilful Dev/Ops product team that follows quite well established Agile and Lean product development practices.

“Our fortnightly release cycle means that if our organisation has a priority LiDAR inspection feature, they never have to wait more than two weeks.

“Using machine learning approaches is as much about efficiency as it is about accuracy to our product team. “Our algorithms continue to produce improved results span after span, but also mean that the data science and software development can be targeted at the next problem.”

Another issue the LiDAR Lab project is looking to improve upon is the management of historical data. By effectively creating a digital map of the CitiPower, Powercor and United Energy networks, issues and trends will be easier to track and project.

Leading the way in vegetation management

Currently, LiDAR Lab is mainly used for vegetation management across VPN and UE, with the data helping to determine where, and to what extent, vegetation intrusions are occurring on spans on infrastructure.

It’s helped VPN and UE to prioritise the annual vegetation management program to ensure cutting is carried out across spans with the worst encroachment of vegetation.

Data obtained from the LiDAR Lab project is also being used for other applications that help VPN and UE meet their regulatory requirements, including measuring distances between conductors on multi-circuit spans and at pole structures to identify potential clearance infringements.

It can also help measure the position of conductors relative to the ground, clearances to buildings, and structure and pole lean. This, in conjunction with smart meter data, affords the ability to calculate actual conductor temperatures for sag and sway, enabling VPN and UE to more accurately model worst-case scenarios.

The networks have a number of reliability, line clearance and bushfire mitigation targets and obligations. LiDAR automation and technology are able to address these at a lower cost than traditional network approaches.

By merging LiDAR hardware with VPN and UE technology, LiDAR Lab mapping capabilities have advanced beyond what most service providers can achieve.

LiDAR Lab algorithms are expected to soon be able to construct a ‘digital twin’ of the entire network, which will have fresh data as well as new imagery loaded into it every year from the capturing phase.

This is seen as one of the major long-term outputs from the LiDAR Lab project and will be beneficial to other teams within the businesses.

“A digital twin of the network that allows all of the systems, employees and potentially customers to reliably get a view of network characteristics or perform some ‘what if’ analysis is the ultimate goal,” the United Energy spokesperson said.

VPN and UE have come a long way since the introduction of the LiDAR Lab project and are slowly building new capabilities. The potential of other applications of the data are slowly being realised, but the priority remains using it to ensure a safe and reliable network, and to meet regulatory obligations.

The project was a finalist in the Best Use of New Technology category at the 2020 Digital Utility Awards.

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