The EFD technology installed on a power pole

Researchers at RMIT University have designed an early fault detection (EFD) system for energy networks that is being used to help prevent bushfires and blackouts in North America, Europe and Australia.

IND Technology, the company that commercialised the innovation, is seeking funding from the Federal Government to assist with rolling out the EFD system across all single-wire earth return (SWER) networks around the country – about 200,000km of power lines – over the next ten years.

With 2,500 units installed worldwide, the technology monitors more than 12,500km of powerlines and has prevented more than 750 failures, potentially saving lives. 

The technology covers up to 5km of power lines with two units.

Lead RMIT researcher and IND Technology Chief Executive Officer, Alan Wong, said the EFD system can detect and locate faults on a powerline before they happen.

“You can think of it like a smoke alarm for the power network,” Mr Wong said.

“If you place enough sensors across the network, these sensors or alarm systems will send out an alert when it thinks there’s a certain risk in the network.”

The EFD system is included in several wildfire mitigation plans in the US and Canada, where the Australian-made innovation is in high demand.

“According to a report by Adept Economics that we commissioned, every dollar spent on the EFD technology would generate $4.70 in expected benefits for Australia, in terms of the benefits from preventing bushfires and blackouts,” Mr Wong said.

Mr Wong said the patented sensing method and data processing algorithm can even identify the precise location of expected faults down to a 10m section of a powerline, and enabled more proactive and cost-effective management of electricity network assets.

“The EFD system is a passive-listening device,” Mr Wong said.

“It listens to radio frequency signals travelling up and down power lines. Some of these radio frequency signals are generated by failing assets on the powerlines. The EFD system uses the radio frequency information collected by the sensors to work out where and which equipment is failing.” 

With the EFD system, network owners can monitor every network asset 24/7, including during extreme weather when asset failures are likely to first appear.

On 7 February 2009, the Victorian town of Marysville was devastated by bushfire. The fire was allegedly caused by a break in an electrical conductor on a power pole near a local sawmill.

Jenny Pullen, a Marysville fire survivor, said she welcomed technology that could help prevent bushfires.

“We went to so many funerals,” Ms Pullen said.

“The bushfire took a huge toll and there’s still people who are trying to get over it and who will never get over it.”

During a trial of the technology, the EFD system developed by Mr Wong’s team identified a failing conductor on Michael Thorne’s property in Victoria’s Porcupine Ridge.

“When I’m driving around the property, I’m looking at the stock or at the pasture, I’m not looking up at the powerline which is well above me, and it would be pretty hard to spot a broken strand even if you were paying a reasonable amount of attention,” Mr Thorne said.

“The risk is that the power line breaks, drops to the ground and starts a grass fire. Grass fires can move very quickly, faster than a bush fire typically because the wind’s not interrupted as it flows across the grass and the fire could have swept up to the house, through the sheds and then beyond to adjacent farms very rapidly.

“In addition to the houses lost in a major fire, there’s the lives lost and lives disrupted. Fire can rip apart communities, it can destroy so much that matters.

“The idea of a fire ripping through my community is obviously deeply distressing and something that I’m keen to celebrate any tools that we have that can help reduce the risk of the kind of devastation we have seen across towns like Marysville and others in Victoria.”

Mr Wong was thrilled when his team discovered the failing conductor on Mr Thorne’s property that the EFD system had detected.

“We always tell people that this technology can potentially save lives and prevent fires. I think in Michael’s example it captured all this essence. It has prevented a potentially catastrophic fire,” Mr Wong said.

Featured image: The EFD technology installed on a power pole. Courtesy of RMIT.

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