Recently, I was lucky enough to win an Award for Innovation by my company.
At the moment Powerlines are inspected by two main ways, in a helicopter or on foot. 4x4 vehicles are the obvious alternative but are actually very limited in where they can go. For instance they can’t cross a farmers field, go over fences or climb steep hillsides without causing a deal of damage.
However, the problem with helicopter inspections are they are costly, need planning and is risky in stormy weather when this is just the time they are needed. As for inspections on foot, they take time and it’s not always easy as things like fences are designed to prevent humans from getting over them.
So the award winning idea was to use unmanned drones (or UAV’s) to perform Powerline inspections. UAV’s can be tasked and guided by GPS, so requires no pilot therefore operated by trained Engineers. Can have gyroscopic stabilisation so can go out in bad weather. Capable of carrying allsorts of different detection equipment such as heat imaging cameras. Sending all the information gathered back to base, in realtime, via radio link, which could be piggy backed onto the Internet and watched back at Head-office.
The Mark 1 device is currently in operation in the New Forest, UK as this area is of outstanding natural beauty so benefits from inspections with minimal disruption. Because of Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) restrictions the UAV is not yet as good as I would like it to be. It is weight limited, must fly under 400ft and cannot operate automatically or out of sight. These rules are indeed restricting but the next task will be to work with the CAA to develop a set of criteria that distinguishes a UAV used for a genuine important purpose from a remote controlled vehicle used for pleasure.
The Mark 1 has a whole host of safety features my favourite being that if the UAV no longer receive radio instructions it will automatically return to the co-ordinates which it took off from.
The obvious question is, how come the military can operate UAV’s the size of fighter jets, fly them for 40 hours or more and can carry missiles? Simply, they are not under the CAA jurisdiction and no I’m not going ask the RAF to do our Powerline inspections for us. This kind of defeats one of the main objectives which is provide Field Engineers with a tool they could use to get power back on in remote areas as quickly as possible after bad weather.
My company, Scottish & Southern Energy, has realised the need for innovation and is actively putting in time, money and effort in encouraging and promoting ideas which for someone like me who is always thinking, exploring and experiment is ideal.
I have a few more ideas on the go, I’m not sure if they will win any more awards but will save time or make or save money and to be honest, this for me is where the ‘kick is’, the reason for doing it.
Just as a warning the Mark 2 UAV design doesn’t look much like a traditional helicopter or plane so we are bound to trigger off some UFO stories. Perhaps when I do wear PPE and a high-viz jacket I could be mistaken for an alien?