Gas and electricity BVLOS trial a resounding success

The large-scale collaborative project, which is both a UK-first and a designated Government Drone Pathfinder Project, is celebrating the successful completion of the first stage of beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flight trials in segregated airspace.

Conducted by Wiltshire based aviation specialists, Callen-Lenz, the completion of the trials (which covered an unprecedented total distance of 688km BVLOS over a combined 640 minutes), mark a key milestone in the journey towards establishing a regularised framework for the use of drones BVLOS in the UK.

The three-year programme, coordinated by the EIC, began in May 2018 and is led by Wales & West Utilities in collaboration with Cadent, National Grid Gas Transmission, Northern Gas Networks, Northern Powergrid, Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks and UK Power Networks, and supported by Connected Places Catapult. Working with UK aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the initiative is exploring how the application of drone technology could transform the way the industry carries out essential maintenance tasks. 

The first phase of trials in the three-year project focused on evaluating specific technologies and techniques that will support the eventual business as usual implementation of BVLOS flight operations on both gas and electricity network assets. In particular, the trials looked at the testing of satellite, cellular and mesh communications; the integration of novel ground centring technologies; evaluation of existing technologies; risk management; operational parameters and aircraft suitability.

The subsequent report concluded that no significant operational issues were found that would present a problem and produced essential learning points and technical outputs that will shape the next stage of flight trials in ‘normal’ airspace – ultimately supporting the generation of the necessary permissions from the CAA.

Richard Trueman, Chief Operating Officer at Callen Lenz said:

“Callen-Lenz are delighted to be working with the EIC and our network partners, making great progress with the CAA and other stakeholders to help enable routine commercial BVLOS capabilities on network assets.  The recent segregated airspace trials were extremely successful, and we look forward to conducting the non-segregated airspace trials in 2020.”   

The work to create a standardised provision for drone operation across the UK’s gas and electricity networks is significant and has the potential to revolutionise the maintenance of critical infrastructure. By obtaining CAA approval, the framework will pave the way for utility companies to use drones in inspections of their network infrastructure.

Lucy Mason, Wales & West Utilities Innovation Manager said

“We’re really excited to be leading this 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 the customers that rely on us. 

“Establishing a regularised operating framework 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.”

Andy Bilclough, Northern Powergrid’s Director of Field Operations, said:

“The success of this pioneering trial brings us another step closer to improving the way network companies inspect, manage and maintain the critical infrastructure that powers everyday life for millions of customers.

“As the first UK electricity network operator in the trial to have BVLOS flights in its operating area, it was excellent seeing how this could work in practice in the future. This partnership – and the trial – continues to provide valuable learning that will help deliver new BVLOS flight industry standards that enable quicker, cost-efficient network inspections which benefit customers and are environmentally friendlier.”

Tony Project Manager at the EIC, said:

“The resounding success of these trials really reinforces the value and benefits of the project for the networks and consumers. It’s great to be supporting cross-sector collaboration, and to see networks coming together to combine their knowledge and resources, in order to further improve current practices.”

Fundamentally, the use of drones will have huge economic benefits and improve efficiency in both routine and non-routine inspections, whilst all the while aiding the mission towards decarbonisation and improved safety through the reduced usage of helicopters. The ability to fly drones BVLOS will also allow for greater distances to be covered, improve access to challenging terrains and enable quicker mobilisation of inspections.  

UKEIC