by Heath McMahon, Team Leader, Geospatial, Data and Surveying Services, Melbourne Water

Melbourne Water’s drone program began in mid-2017 and in a short space of time has grown and delivered a myriad of benefits across the business to become an integral and important part of our business-as-usual operations. 

Our early fleet included seven drones and a team of ten with Remote Pilot’s Licences (RePL) trained to operate them.

Fast-track to December 2019 and Melbourne Water has expanded our capability – more than quadrupling our personnel trained in using and/or awareness of drone operations to 30.

These employees are skilled in using sub 2kg drones for low-risk operations and have a strong understanding of the operating rules in accordance with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) requirements for commercial drone piloting.

Safety is the key driver 

The primary driver for Melbourne Water to develop its internal drone capability is safety – particularly around asset inspections.

Early examples of this included inspection of the Thomson Reservoir Spillway and mapping eroded waterways where these locations were too hazardous for employees to enter.

Put simply, we would much prefer to operate a drone in a dangerous location than put a person in harm’s way.

Drones also allow inspection activities to be performed more quickly and safely, as they provide direct access to assets without the need for isolation, scaffolding, elevated work platforms or other infrastructure.

As drone technology has evolved significantly over the past decade it has become much more accessible and the operating platforms have increased in reliability. This has allowed us to introduce drone technology as an important tool in our day-to-day business.

A key benefit of the internal program is having our own people operating the drones because nobody knows our waterways, water and sewerage assets better than our own dedicated staff.

All Melbourne Water drone operators come from various teams throughout the business rather than one centralised team. Many eyes and experience make for effective and light work!

A great example of the benefit of our drone program involves the inspection of the 150m high Thomson Reservoir Spillway. This is a near vertical asset so it is extremely tricky to inspect.

Using internal personnel operating drones to perform this inspection allowed Melbourne Water’s asset managers to gain a greater insight into the condition of the spillway where they could visually inspect for items such as cracking or vegetation accumulation in real time.

Historically this work may have been performed by having personnel abseil the spillway – which is an extremely high-risk task.

The high-quality footage from the drones and their high-zoom cameras allows us to inspect not only the spillway but also the electrical conduits adjacent to the spillway which are otherwise inaccessible.

This was an unforeseen benefit of observing images from an aerial perspective.

A simple and hugely beneficial learning from this inspection was altering the lens of the standard camera to increase the zoom. This allowed us to operate the drone at a safer distance further away from the spillway.

The drone program allows us to deliver inspection works faster and more cost-effectively. In the past, if we were to inspect an asset such as the roof of a tank or the top of a dam outlet tower, a scissor lift and/or staff working at height would be required.

We can now quickly deploy one of our drones to perform this inspection and the operator doesn’t even have to leave the ground. That’s a win for safety and efficiency.

Data-driven insights

While the actual drone is the high-profile technology many people are most attracted to, the real smarts in the technology come from how the resultant observations can create and push data-driven insights.

Melbourne Water is using drone-derived data on a project investigating smarter ways to manage vegetation surrounding our wetlands.

In collaboration with FrontierSI, a not-for-profit focused on spatial technologies, we are co-developing a machine learning algorithm which will use imagery observed from the drones to automate counting and detection of plant species surrounding Melbourne Water’s approximately 500 wetlands.

This will ensure we have the right balance of vegetation surrounding them, with the algorithm providing crucial environmental intelligence quickly and relatively cheaply.

Melbourne Water is committed to reducing our carbon emissions via the establishment of new solar farms at the Eastern Treatment Plant and Winneke Water Treatment Plant.

Our drones will regularly inspect these sites to ensure the panels are operating as intended and to maximum efficiency.

To that end, we are exploring the use of innovative thermal imaging camera technology to ensure that the cells within the panels are doing their job.

If one of the cells is damaged or defective we should easily be able to detect this through the thermal signature of the cell.

There have also been many unrealised benefits of the program.

We are now using and sharing our drone footage for community engagement purposes: to display the progress of our major projects; support virtual tours of our major treatment plants for schools; provide footage of Melbourne’s Water storages for media coverage; and utilising our thermal camera to observe the thermal cooling of our waterway improvement projects.

We have also seen a steady increase in the demand from members of the public and contractors wanting to fly drones over Melbourne Water sites.

As a result, we have upskilled our site managers so they are aware of CASA’s drone operating restrictions so that requests to fly at Melbourne Water sites are performed safely and in accordance with CASA.

We capitalised on this demand to also upskill some of our site managers in the operation of sub 2kg drones so they can fully appreciate the impact and opportunity of drone technology at their sites.

The last word goes to our Managing Director, Michael Wandmaker.

“Our drone program is a cost-effective means of supporting our core business, empowering our personnel and improving the services we provide to the public.

“We will continue to look for further opportunities to capitalise on the advancements in technology to further embed the benefits of this program. We are excited as to where this innovation will continue to take us as a business.”

Charlotte Pordage is Editor of Utility magazine, a position she has held since November 2018. She joined the team as an Associate Editor in October 2017, after sharpening her writing and editing skills across a range of print and digital publications. Charlotte graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2011 with joint honours in English and Latin. When she's not putting together Australia's only dedicated utility magazine, she can usually be found riding her horse or curled up with a good book.

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