Powercor details its largest drone trial across western Victoria as the electricity distributor investigates how the technology may be used in the future to maintain a safe and reliable network for homes and business.
Take a moment to imagine yourself among thick, ferny undergrowth, soaring treetops, deep valleys and lofty peaks. There’s pristine beaches meeting temperate rainforests containing all manner of wildlife.
You’re in Victoria’s Great Otway National Park which, together with surrounding forests, make up a remote wilderness stretching from the iconic Great Ocean Road to prime dairy country in Western Victoria. Tranquil streams, hiking trails and scenic lookouts punctuate this landscape.
So do several high voltage powerlines stretching from Colac to the north, winding their way through the heavily forested Otways, towards coastal towns to the south.
These are important powerlines, providing electricity to some key coastal tourist destinations such as Apollo Bay and Skenes Creek, as well as the mountain-biking mecca of Forrest.
Responsible for inspecting and maintaining these powerlines, poles and associated infrastructure is Powercor, Victoria’s largest electricity distributor.
Inspections are critical to identifying any faults, or potential faults, on the network which in turn allows Powercor’s maintenance teams to ensure electricity is delivered safely and reliably.
And until recently, these assets were inspected largely by road and, for the more remote poles, by foot patrols. But over the past 18 months these teams have had a helping hand, or more accurately, an eye in the sky.
Decentralised drone operator model
Powercor is trialling two separate approaches to using unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to assist with its network inspection programs. And it’s not just the Otways which have had drones overhead.
The largest drone trial occurred during September and October and included an inspection of 10,000 poles in areas around Bendigo, Clunes, Woodend, Winchelsea, Colac and Wemen. Inspections also occurred throughout the Wimmera, parts of the Surf Coast and areas south of Ballarat.
For this trial, the work was conducted by individual licensed drone operators across the state in a decentralised model. The drone operators captured high resolution images which were then used by Powercor’s own asset inspectors to assess whether any maintenance was required for each asset.
Powercor’s Head of Digital, Luke Skinner, said the benefit of this type of drone inspection program was they could cover large areas quickly and capture in greater detail information about power assets.
“This trial is about finding new ways to keep our network operating safely and reliably,” Mr Skinner said. “We operated these drone inspections alongside our traditional inspection program to allow us to analyse results and accuracy.
“Our highly-experienced asset inspectors examine the images captured by the drones and if they detect defects, they will direct these to our maintenance teams to address.”
Continuous program of asset inspection
It’s not the first trial Powercor has conducted using drones – and it’s not the only model used either. Previous trials have been more targeted, using established drone operators with sophisticated platforms to conduct operations in areas with difficult terrain.
These trials, in places such as the Otways, areas south of Ballarat and around Charlton, Wedderburn and Bridgewater have inspected between 50 and 200 poles each. They included thermographic imaging, which seeks out ‘hot spots’ on the network which give clues about likely faults before they even occur.
These smaller, targeted drone inspections have also assisted in detailed inspections of powerline conductors themselves, hovering close above a powerline and traversing its entire span to look for corrosion or other defects.
The specialist teams operating these trials were using the Matrice 300 RTK – a powerful industrial drone platform with an advanced flight controller system, six-directional sensing, real-time video transmission, thermal imaging and obstacle- detection systems.
“These ongoing trials are building our knowledge and understanding about how this new technology may be incorporated into our annual program of work inspecting poles, powerlines and other infrastructure,” Mr Skinner said.
The work is in addition to Powercor’s ongoing continuous program of asset inspections, which are also being conducted by crews in vehicles, on foot and by helicopter.
Powercor manages its network of almost 90,000km of powerline and 588,000 poles through a rigorous inspection and maintenance program, on top of a network-wide vegetation management program clearing trees and shrubs well away from powerlines.
For more information on Powercor’s inspection programs, visit www.powercor.com.au.
Drone fast facts
Model: Matrice 300 RTK
Dimensions: 810×670×430 mm (L×W×H)
Weight: Approx. 3.6kg (without batteries) and 6.3kg (with two TB60 batteries)
Max Speed: 83km/h
Average operation speed: 3km/h
Max Ascent Speed: 6m/s
Max Descent Speed (vertical): 5m/s
Max height of operation: 5000m
Operational height above powerlines: 4m
Max Flight Time: 55 min