Most people don’t think about it when they switch on their light in the morning, but the electrons that light up the lamp on their bedside table have already traveled hundreds of kilometers through high-voltage lines via countless electricity pylons. Crucial infrastructure, which must be inspected regularly and thoroughly. Currently, a time and cost consuming procedure. In order to inspect those lines more efficiently, Mainblades and Dutch Drone Company (DDC) partnered together to develop Powerblades – a drone-based inspection technology which can execute an inspection in a fully automated fashion.
Time and cost intensive
In the Netherlands there are an estimated 5000 high voltage towers. It is important that they are well maintained and in good condition. Inspecting them however, currently takes up a large part of the budget from operators. For an inspection the entire line must be switched off. “Every day that a tower is out of order costs a lot of money “, says Dejan Borota, Director of Mainblades. Once turned off, an inspector must climb into the mast and manually inspect all possible problem areas according to a protocol. The engineer has to return to the office to manually create a report. A cost-and time-consuming procedure, especially given that one inspector can only inspect two to three towers per day. This way, inspections are based on an incidental need rather than on a regular basis, which means that in many cases the towers cannot be monitored in time.
Opportunities for automation
“Our partner realized that it would be ideal if they could do such inspections while the high-voltage line is still in operation“, says Jochem Verboom, Chief Technology Officer at Mainblades. “We partnered up with DDC to proof that a fully automated drone solution can achieve exactly that”. For the past 10 months Mainblades and DDC therefore worked intensively on a technology to automate the entire inspection process including drone flight, photo capture, data analysis and reporting. PowerBlades was born. “This is a unique approach compared to existing drone-based inspection solutions“, Verboom notes. “Non-automated alternatives are time consuming and expensive because even for experienced drone pilots it’s very difficult to capture the required images and the data is not consistent. In addition, the images from the drone need to be analysed after the flight.“ The aim of PowerBlades however is that operators can standardize inspections with flights that are fully automated. This saves time and money. Not only because inspections are performed consistently, but also because issues like corrosion, cracks and leaks are identified before they can become problems that require shutdowns and major fixes. “The impact we are foreseeing with this technology are more frequent, less costly inspections and much improved system reliability“ according to Verboom.
Laying the groundwork
As a launching customer, the largest Dutch operator functions as an important strategic partner for the roll-out of the PowerBlades project which is supported by the REACT EU Kansen voor West subsidiary. In this process, both parties contribute with their unique knowledge. DDC is one of the leading companies in the Netherlands that offers drone inspections as a service with special expertise on operations and regulations. Mainblades contributes in the form of intelligent software that allows the drone to perform automated flights and recognize damages with Artificial Intelligence. Currently, the relationship is focused on demonstrating the added value of the technology. The partners have a license and permission to use the operators’ assets to develop, test and demonstrate the use and usefulness of PowerBlades. For this, a series of production level pilot inspections has been conducted over the past 10 months in which the groundwork of the technology has been laid. Various tower types have been mapped, points of interest (e.g. cotter pins) have been identified, a data set of photos was created, as well as an iPad application developed that enables the inspectors to perform an automated inspection safely from the ground. The end goal is that in the future an automated inspection can be performed quickly and consistently based solely on customer input. “Because we are adding automation to the process, inspection times can be kept short, allowing up to eight towers to be inspected per day on a regular basis. This is very significant for operators”, Borota notes.
Through this project, the partners are paving the way for a new generation of self-flying inspection drones. “We want to set completely new standards for data accuracy, system reliability and safety for these kind of inspections“, Verboom points out. Both companies see the market for drone inspections of high-voltage towers growing strongly but point also to the high quality requirements. A drone that takes pictures is not enough. „Our partner wants complete and relevant data, but also tools to quickly analyze that data and extract insights from it. We are pleased to see the results we achieved so far. Of course, we can still improve on things, but we are making steps in the right direction”.
Over the next months Mainblades and DDC continue their efforts to finetune the technology. The partners expect that once PowerBlades has been shown to work in the Netherlands, the technology could quickly expand to other markets in Europe and beyond.