by Byron Connolly

Fugro Roames recruits drones to help scan power lines

May 03, 2016
Big Data

Fugro Roames has recruited drones to help scan 1.1 million overhead power poles across 160,000 kilometres in a trial for Ergon Energy.

The former Ergon Energy business unit – which was acquired by Dutch company Fugro in 2014 – has built an asset management service that has solved the challenges of maintaining the regional energy supplier’s geographically-dispersed overhead electricity network.

Falcon unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) are being used in the trial, in addition to Fugro Roames’ existing fleet of four Cessna 206 light aircraft, which are traditionally used to complete data capture across the network.

The drones are fitted with cameras and the Cessnas have laser sensors that capture 3D images of the distribution network that runs through 600 towns and cities across the state.

Drones, which fly much lower than the Cessna aircraft, enable the organisation to look a lot more closely at the top of the power poles to identify potential failures that may occur in five, or even 10 years, Scott Carpenter, work program manager at Fugro Roames told CIO Australia.

Carpenter said he personally saw this type of failure during a trip to Brunswick Heads in northern NSW where a street light in a park was about to collapse because it had rusted through.

“That was exacerbated due to fat pelicans sitting on and landing heavily [on the pole] and the salt [in the air]. The arm was about to bend and that was a factor that was completely out of the control of [the energy provider] and they fixed it.

“I happened to be there on holidays, I rang up and they fixed it in the evening on a Friday night, totally unplanned with the crews working in the dark. While they are trained for that, we want to remove people from potentially risky situations,” he said.

This could have been scheduled during the day and picking up this type of fault is what the drones are useful for, he said.

Before Roames was founded, Ergon Energy spent more than $100 million annually on inspecting, auditing and cutting vegetation that was obstructing overhead power lines. Since the introduction of the asset management service, costs have dropped to $60 million, said Carpenter.

“The secret sauce is all of that data goes into Amazon Web Services and we use an algorithmic approach that is using machine learning to look into that 3D data and interpret it as a human does,” said Carpenter.

“We can build a model of the environment and run the analytics at scale, showing where poles are leaning too much, where wires are hanging over the ground, and where someone has done a renovation that is too close to the power line.

“All of that [information] becomes very easy to harvest. Effectively, you are hiring an army of computers to inspect the entire network – you look at 10,000 locations and report 100 that need action,” he said.

Since 2012, the four Cessna aircraft have collected 2 petabytes of data including models of over 100 million trees which are watched every year to determine if there are differences in their structure and surroundings.

While sitting at their desk, a staff member at the energy provider can determine if a power line is owned by a customer or is the company’s responsibility, said Carpenter.

An engineer could waste six hours driving out and back from a customer site only to learn that the power line is over a property boundary and is the customer’s responsibility. They can now fire up Google Earth, view property boundary overlays using 3D models and determine if they need to travel to the customer’s property, he said.

Heatmaps provide Ergon with a view of its risk across the areas it covers in QLD so it can make better strategy decisions.

For example, engineers could look at a particular area in Mt Isa, determine that no work needs to be done for another 12 months, saving the company money. Power lines near Townsville need more attention because that area has received a lot of rain and there’s more vegetation surrounding the lines, he said.

“This is one of the reasons that they [Ergon Energy] have been able to get that $40 million saving but without compromising safety,” said Carpenter.

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