The rapid evolution and maturity of technology is creating diverse opportunities for utilities to embrace emerging devices and systems which improve operational efficiency, customer experience and enable greater safety outcomes.
With a long history of innovation, SA Water has a focus on fostering and developing new applications of technology for the benefit of its customers and communities.
The South Australian utility’s smart network is leading the way by integrating digital and smart technologies to enhance traditional asset management and deliver real-time monitoring and predictive analytics of its underground network of water and sewer mains.
Turning its attention to the rise of unmanned aerial vehicles – or colloquially coined as ‘drones’ – SA Water’s seven licensed drone pilots are maturing the utility’s capability and progressively using the technology at more of its water and wastewater facilities across the state.
SA Water General Manager of Business Services, Jamie Hollamby, said the drones are enabling a safer working environment for their people.
“Inspecting and maintaining our infrastructure is critical to ensuring reliable services for our customers, but due to their size or location, some parts of our sites can be difficult to access,” Mr Hollamby said.
“The safety and wellbeing of our people is paramount, and that’s why we’re constantly exploring innovative solutions and new technologies to improve safety outcomes and working environments, such as our people needing to climb to an elevated water storage tank and inspect these vital assets.
“A safer and more efficient alternative, we’re using drones to help get these important jobs done.
“Drones enable us to remotely view and film the condition of structures, such as a reservoir’s outlet tower and tunnel, providing close-up, high-quality images, even in the dark, and when we need to see every little bit of these large structures, comes in very handy.
“In addition to eliminating safety risks by removing the person from a particular situation, using our drones is also reducing the time taken to complete tasks, which in turn, is reducing operational costs.”
SA Water’s drove of drones consists of two fixed-wing and four multirotor drones, including the Aeromapper Talon, Matrice 210 and Phantom 4 Advanced.
Along with asset inspections, the utility’s drones are taking flight to capture aerial and thermal photography and videography to provide greater perspective to large-scale ground operations, assess environmental health and evolution over time, and monitor the progress of capital projects with a bird’s eye view.
SA Water’s drone pilots are now combining terrestrial laser scan data with UAV imagery and Pix4D photogrammetry software to provide a full inside-and-out 3D model representation of its assets, and harnessing the technology to create Digital Surface Models which help inform engineering projects.
“As we continue to develop and embed the capability, we’re learning more each day about the various applications and benefits of drones,” Mr Hollamby said.
“Recently, we undertook eight days of flying to survey 40km of Lake Victoria’s shoreline, taking more than 20,000 photos and producing surface models and vegetation comparisons to determine shoreline stability and monitor yearly changes, helping us better understand any impact of our operation.
“We’re also trialling a drone specially-designed for confined spaces which utilises a dome-shaped cage to absorb any shocks from collisions and powerful lighting and thermal imagery for versatile data collection, allowing us to safely gain vision of certain infrastructure we haven’t been able to access previously.
“Our pilots are even now supporting our ambitious goal of achieving a zero cost energy future by using thermal imagery to help monitor the efficiency of solar panels located across our sites and observe any changes in surrounding heat to ensure there is no impact to nearby residents.
“In 2016, we started with two drone pilots and we’re striving to continue finessing our capability and aim to have 20 licensed pilots across the business by the end of 2020.”
SA Water is working towards a zero-cost energy future through a range of complementary initiatives, such as increasing renewable energy generation and storage, to neutralise electricity costs and help manage water and sewerage charges to keep them as low and stable as possible for its customers.