Sparks Electrical News

Unmanned aerial systems, or drones, are offering a cost-effective alternative to manual inspections of often hard to reach infrastructure, and are promising a future in which reactive maintenance makes way for predictive operations. While this may sound like a solution employed only by extremely high-tech and well-funded companies, drones are already being used by South African utilities, mines, renewable energy companies and civil engineering firms.

Braam Botha, head of operations at UAV Industries explains that drones are replacing extremely expensive helicopter flights as well as laborious manual operations, offering better results at a fraction of the cost. “Using drones to conduct inspections of electrical infrastructure is extremely cost effective, as there is less manpower and less time required, while yielding greater accuracy in the data captured.”

FrontPageAug DroneImageDrones allow for real-time inspection and immediate sharing of the results, and because they use HD and infrared imaging, drones obtain much more detailed information that might never have been picked up on manual inspections. The fact that the drone is flying into sometimes hazardous areas means there is a safety benefit for workers as well.

Botha adds that South Africa has some of the most stringent drone regulations in the world, and as a result, organisations requiring the use of drones often outsource the job to companies like UAV Industries, which has the skills of trained drone pilots as well as the correct drones for the job. “We import specialised inspection drones that have been modified for industrial inspections. Owing to the numerous metal elements involved in a boiler inspection, for example, a commercial drone, such as those available in the shops, is not suitable as it has not been modified to eliminate the risks of external interferences that could be caused by metal elements during flight.”

Boiler inspection simplified

Without a drone, the procedure for inspecting a boiler would involve shutting down the boiler in order to conduct a first manual inspection. Scaffolding would then have to be built around the boiler, which would require signoff from the relevant safety and security department or team before it could be used. There would then need to be a further manual inspection of the boiler to identify the problem, and these findings would be shared with the relevant engineers to decide on a solution.

This is a time consuming procedure, with a high running cost due to the downtime of the boiler, the required manpower and the number of steps required to determine the results of the inspection. “UAV Industries’ partners have reported up to seven days of boiler ‘down time’ during these types of manual inspections, which can drain up to R1-million of a company’s revenue,” says Botha.

“Using a drone, there is no need to shut down the boiler for nearly as long. A visual inspection is made initially and preflight safety checks are done according to SACAA regulations. Within 20 minutes, a drone should be able to take off to conduct an aerial inspection of the boiler under normal conditions. The scaffolding and manual inspection are eliminated completely, saving significant time and cost,” he explains.

Using infrared and HD footage, drones can provide real-time data which can be sent to the relevant engineers almost instantaneously. They are then able to make a final call on what needs to be done. This means that within a few hours, the boiler can be up and running effectively again.

No more pylon climbing

Power line maintenance for electric utilities is expensive, dangerous, and time consuming. Many have started using thermal hot-spot recognition, which uses a thermal camera to inspect power lines for high-impedance areas. As a result of the fact that these high-impedance areas generate more heat than the surrounding equipment, they are visible on the thermal camera and can signal that there is a fault on the power line.

While thermal cameras can be used by a person on the ground, this can be laborious and time consuming. It is also almost impossible when power lines are located above rugged terrain.

Botha says drones are being used to great effect in monitoring power lines. “With power lines, there can be magnetic GPS interferences. However, owing to the sophisticated camera lenses that UAV Industries uses, we are able to fly at a safe enough distance from a power line, which negates the necessity for a specialised inspection drone.

This means we are able to use a consumer-based drone with a special camera lens attached.”

Thanks to the use of drones, these types of assessments and inspections no longer require expensive equipment and dangerous acrobatics. With tight profit margins and safety becoming increasingly important to utilities, drones are ensuring efficiency and situational awareness, as well as the ability to identify easily avoidable problems such as loosening electrical cables, missing screws and so on.

Now carrying the same technology used by helicopters, drones can reveal the smallest risks in the electrical grid, allowing utilities to focus their maintenance budgets where it matters most, and prioritise the actions necessary to mitigate those risks and avert power outages and downtime.

With the cost and time saving benefits they offer, it would not be hard to picture a future in which utilities could put smaller drones on every single truck, allowing them to do site inspections quickly and easily.

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Contact Sparks Electrical News

Title: Editor
Name: Karen Grant
Email: sparks@crown.co.za
Phone: +27 11 622-4770
Fax: +27 11 615-6108

Title: Advertising Manager
Name: Carin Hannay
Email: carinh@crown.co.za
Phone: +27 11 622-4770
Fax: +27 11 615-6108

 
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