Technology has become a major part of our modern world, helping to make life easier and safer for many – and utilities are no different. For Gippsland Water, the implementation of advanced technology into its operations has been a no-brainer, with the water utility embracing the use of drone technology over the past few years to help improve the way its team carries out essential tasks, like inspecting sites with limited access.

Gippsland Water, which is responsible for maintaining a $1 billion infrastructure network, has been using drone technology to assist in asset inspections since 2016. Since implementation, the technology has helped to improve safety, deliver cost-savings and take the organisation’s operations to the next level.

Managing and monitoring assets with drones

Sarah Cumming, Managing Director at Gippsland Water, said that the utility has a lot of infrastructure that can be difficult to access, like large water towers, and that the drones have been instrumental in improving the way the organisation’s teams are able to inspect these essential assets.

“Flying a drone around a water tower to take video can eliminate the need to work from heights and enable us to perform an inspection from the safety of the ground,” Ms Cumming said.

“Then a year later, at the click of a button, we can record the exact same path to observe if there are any changes to that tower worth investigating.”

Drones have also been used by Gippsland Water to create maps, monitor environmental sites and perform land surveys.

Ms Cumming said that the organisation’s maintenance engineers have used the drones to create photographic 2D maps and 3D models of various sites by hovering the drones above the site, taking hundreds of photographs and stitching them all together to create a comprehensive and detailed image.

“From a computer in our Traralgon office, our engineers are using 3D models of our facilities to plot exactly where new buildings can be located before any detailed designs are completed.”

Gippsland Water General Manager Operations, Chris Wood, said that the use of drones has helped Gippsland Water with land and environmental management, and assisted with water quality monitoring across its network.

“We manage multiple catchments and raw water sources across Gippsland. Using drones we can monitor without having to physically access the water storage. Monitoring includes looking for algae or signs of leaks,” Mr Wood said.

“We’re now looking at ways to monitor our catchments if they are affected by environmental events, as well as the performance of some of our hardwood plantations.

“We’ve also used drone photography and videography to monitor performance of an algaecide trial in one of our raw water basins. Drones have also been used in engineering maintenance works because of a drone’s ability to take aerial distance measurements to help carry out earthworks.”

Improving safety and saving time

For all organisations, safety is a major priority. Mr Wood said that by using drones, Gippsland Water is able to perform some of the tasks involved with asset inspection more safely and are able to collate consistent results in more cost-effective ways.

“At this stage, the savings have been in time and effort, as well as benefits to safety and quality. Drones have given us opportunities to do things that would have been unachievable or too costly in the past,” Mr Wood said.

“For instance, one safety improvement is using the drones to inspect tanks. This removes the need for elevated work platforms or staff having to climb ladders with harnesses to access the tanks.

“We usually outsource aerial photography, 3D scanning and surveys – however as our capabilities grow, we might be able to move some of those things in-house.”

Gippsland Water is also careful to ensure that all its drone operations are undertaken in accordance with aviation rules and regulations.

“We have a remotely piloted aircraft policy and procedure and an Aviation Reference Number (ARN) to ensure we’re complying with all requirements,” Mr Wood said.

Protecting and utilising data

With the implementation of drone technology comes vast amounts of data. For Gippsland Water, one of the biggest challenges has been understanding what to do with this data and how its employees can benefit most from these datasets.

“This has been a big challenge for us and it’s why we’re still trialling many drone applications. To capture a single site can require terabytes of raw data, with processed data requiring even further terabytes,” Mr Wood said.

“We’re trialling these applications, capturing only sections of smaller sites and only storing the raw data for now. We’re working to upgrade our systems so they can process and store these large datasets in a way that can be shared across the organisation, while complying with our strict security protocols.”

In addition to finding the best way to manage the new large datasets, Gippsland Water has had to consider how it will protect this confidential information and the future of data security in the organisation.

“Just like data size, ensuring data security is a major hurdle in the development of all our geographic information system (GIS) applications for drone data storage,” Mr Wood said.

“With so many potential solutions being cloud-based, we have prioritised data security over everything else, which is why all these applications are still in development.”

The future for drone technology

While the use of drones at Gippsland Water is still in its infancy, the utility is making major strides as a leader of drone technology in the water sector by looking at further opportunities for the future.

“At this stage, we’re focused on growing the photogrammetry applications with our existing drone hardware and looking forward to implementing the data we’ve captured so far into our existing GIS system,” Mr Wood said.

“We’re also looking to the future, aware that drones are an emerging technology that will become key to our industry and many others.

“We’d like to explore the use of higher-level drones with multispectral and real-time kinematic (RTK) capability, aware that this requires capital investment and increased resourcing.”

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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