A landmark new project is paving the way for utility companies to use drones to inspect their network infrastructure for the first time.
The large-scale project is working across electricity and gas networks and is coordinated by international innovation scout the Energy Innovation Centre (EIC). The three-year programme is being led by Wales & West Utilities in collaboration with Cadent, National Grid Gas Transmission, Northern Gas Networks, Northern Powergrid, Scottish & Southern Electricity Networks and UK Power Networks.
A UK first and a designated government Pathfinder project, this initiative will work with UK aviation regulation the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to explore how the application of drone technology could transform the way the industry carries out essential maintenance tasks.
The aerial inspection of network infrastructure is a costly necessity for the UK’s gas and electricity network operators and usually involves the deployment of piloted helicopters or the use of scaffolds and cherry pickers. Drones, however, are fast becoming a viable, safer and cheaper alternative for getting this job done, with the potential to revolutionise the way critical infrastructure is maintained.
To fully realise the benefits that drones can bring to routine network tasks such as pipeline or overhead line inspections, there is a requirement to fly ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS). Up until now, drones have only been able to fly ‘within visual line of sight’, a distance of some 500 metres from the control operator. Flying drones BVLOS means greater distances can be covered, challenging terrains can be accessed more easily and inspections can be mobilised more quickly.
The CAA has stated that their regulations would support the flying of drones BVLOS but there is currently no acceptable means of compliance for ‘business as usual’ BVLOS operations. This project will focus on the creation of a comprehensive operational framework, including safety cases for specific network operations, that has been approved by the CAA.
The project has the potential to deliver significant financial savings and data quality improvements.
Wiltshire-based aviation specialists, Callen-Lenz, will be responsible for creating the project’s operational framework and will seek to prove a range of applications through practical demonstrations and flight trials. Selected via a call for innovation from the EIC, their skills lie in the management of manned and unmanned systems and their experience spans the public and private sectors and the civilian and military domains.
The benefits of creating a standardised provision for drone operation across the UK’s gas and electricity networks are significant. Essentially, the use of drones will allow routine and non-routine inspections to be carried out quicker, easier and cheaper than ever before.
Tony Knowles, Technical Manager at the EIC, said:
“We knew that the only way to fully realise the financial, environmental and health and safety benefits of using drones across the gas and electricity networks was to create a universal, cross-network, cross-utility framework for operations, endorsed by the CAA.
In order to secure this, meaningful project-based collaboration is critical. Our open approach and commitment to shared learning via this project will deliver value for money, ultimately driving down energy costs for UK consumers.”
Lucy Mason, Wales & West Utilities Innovation Manager, said:
“We’re really excited to be leading this UK first collaborative innovation project. BVLOS flight will bring real benefits to gas and electricity networks. It will help us to maintain our infrastructure in a safer, more cost effective way, so we can all continue to deliver for customers.
“Getting the endorsement of the CAA to use drones for routine and non-routine inspections will be a key step in making BVLOS flight ‘business as usual’ and will underline the innovative approach the utilities industry is taking to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. ”
Eithne Allen, Cadent Project Manager, said:
“Cadent are absolutely delighted to be involved in this cross industry project. These are important first steps in ensuring we get the framework and safety cases right for a future where drones can take on the task of visually inspecting HP assets.”
Adrian Evens, Callen-Lenz Technical Director, said:
“Callen-Lenz is delighted to have been selected to deliver this exciting project on behalf of the energy distribution industry. With ten years of international drone operational experience and a highly qualified team we work extensively with both government bodies and commercial organisations on technical, safety and regulatory solutions. Our unique combination of knowledge and skills will be applied to ensuring that a step-change in operational capability is achieved.”
Quentin Mabbutt, Innovation Delivery Manager for National Grid Gas Transmission, said:
“Beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone flights will offer significant potential to all utility networks in their ongoing asset integrity management activities. The programme will play an important role in making these activities a reality.”
Andy Middleton, Northern Gas Networks’ BVLOS Project Manager said:
“Northern Gas Networks is delighted to be involved with the BVLOS project, and keen to understand how we can utilise this fantastic technology to help us work more smartly, safely and efficiently.”
Andy Bilclough, Northern Powergrid’s Head of Delivery, City Zones, said:
“We see huge value in being part of this collaborative project. The potential to increase the use of drones across our business to help inspect our 17,400 miles of overhead lines is a real game changer. Having CAA endorsed, cross-industry standards in the future will help us to safely inspect our networks more quickly, quietly and efficiently – which is good news for our customers.”
Rona Mitchell, Innovation Engineer at UK Power Networks said:
“This project is a first of its kind collaboration from seven utility companies, and UK Power Networks is delighted to be a part of it. We are committed to embracing change and new ways of doing things where it can benefit our customers.”