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In Western Australia, Western Power connects more than two million customers over an area larger than the United Kingdom. The South West Interconnected Network (SWIN) is one of the world’s largest standalone grids and spans around 255,000 square kilometres, from Kalbarri in the north to Bremer Bay on the south coast and inland to Kalgoorlie.

Thermal image captured by the drone used in the trial. Photo credit: Western Power

With such a large network, maintenance is a challenging and ongoing part of daily operations. As part of its drive to incorporate new technologies to evolve the grid and its maintenance, Western Power is trialling Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) to assist with preventative upkeep and identification of faults in regional areas.

The RPA (or drone) used in the trial is designed for use around electrical infrastructure and includes technology to mitigate electromagnetic interference, allowing safe navigation close to powerlines.

The drone, a DJI Matrice 210, is equipped with two cameras that allow pilots to switch between a high-powered zoom lens (Zenmuse Z30) and a thermal heat-sensing camera (Zenmuse XT2 from Flir) in real time to find faults and defects that would otherwise not be detected.

Using drones enables Western Power crews to inspect assets in difficult-to-reach locations and address vehicle access issues in agricultural and environmentally sensitive locations.

Drones also allow crews to avoid working at heights, staying safely on the ground and away from live lines.

Additionally, drones can more easily capture media (images and video) for future use and can travel a lot faster than a field crew member on foot patrol, providing greater efficiencies. They also cost less to run than other aerial resources such as helicopters.

The trial is being conducted in the state’s Mid-West region around Northam and Geraldton, where severe weather events can affect power supply to critical feeder lines, impacting regional customers.

The trial mirrors the existing fault response process, but with the inclusion of drone capability providing the opportunity to assess drone feasibility against current processes and systems in use.

Western Power Regional North Manager, Derek Sutherland, was instrumental in getting the project off the ground.

“RPAs present an opportunity to reduce costs, response times and risk relating to visual inspections of faults in our regional areas.

The hope is to use drone capabilities to make inspections safer and easier for our crews and contractors, and allow for large-scale inspections, wide area incident response and the ability to gather high-quality data,” Mr Sutherland said.

Exploring the benefits of drone technology

The trial is being led by Western Power Senior Operational Improvement Specialist, Alan Zanich, who is excited by the preliminary results, and the potential that drones present for the organisation in the future.

“Throughout the trial we have experienced many exciting examples of the benefits of this technology, including instances where previous foot patrols had not detected faults identified by the drone, thermal imagery success in identifying hot spots on critical feeder lines, and power quality investigations that have identified defects,” Mr Zanich said.

“Developing this capability internally enables immediate response to fault and emergency situations, and places Western Power in a strong position to capitalise on future opportunities including BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight), autonomous flights and AI (artificial intelligence) among others.”

Western Power’s Chief Remote Pilot, Adam Portmann, manages the pilots through day-to-day operations and developed Western Power’s operating manuals and procedures to support the application to CASA (Civil Aviation Safety Authority) for Western Power’s certification.

As part of the trial, four Western Power field crew members completed CASA-accredited training to become remote pilots, as well as training specific to powerline inspection.

“In addition to the visual inspection of faults, the team explored other opportunities presented by RPA technology during the trial, including applications in thermal asset inspections, line of sight communications and across our spectrum of asset classes such as secondary systems, and substations,” Mr Portmann said.

The internal capability approach supports Western Power’s commitment to developing its workforce while also providing control and flexibility in the further development of opportunities in the drone space.

Mr Portmann said the trial was nearing its conclusion and work was underway on compiling the resulting feasibility report.

“So far the results have been promising and we are confident that drones will have a role to play in Western Power operations in the future,” he said.

With well-developed internal pilot capability, fit-for-purpose drone equipment, and forthcoming commercial drone license, Western Power is well positioned to capitalise on the future opportunities in this space.

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