Autonomous drones could soon manage the UK’s energy grid


“We’re moving into a future where these drones will fly themselves all over the countryside,” says McKenna. “But the long-term future of this software is that it will fly people around.”

With the British National Grid, which manages the country’s energy supply, the relationship was more concrete, after the organization committed funds to accelerate the development of Sees.ai technology. The first goal of the partnership is to prove that the system can be used to better maintain the network’s 21,900 steel poles.

The network needs constant adjustments to remain reliable, and regular inspections are important. National Grid boasts 99.99 percent reliability: something it wants to improve by locating critical problems long before an outage occurs. In the UK’s humid climate there is a high risk of corrosion, which is difficult to stop once it has started. Pylons need to be replaced when rust has affected their structural integrity, so early detection saves money in the long run.

National Grid spends around £16m every year painting its pylons, and predicts a £35m cost over the next five years to replace corroded steel. Considering the high costs of research and development, Sees.ai’s drone system is not necessarily cheaper than other inspection methods, but National Grid anticipates that it will enable more frequent and timely data collection which in turn will save costs through more targeted asset replacements. If the trials are successful, National Grid predicts savings of over £1m for UK consumers by 2031.

But until cost-effective drones are deployed on a large scale, the only option is to use helicopters. A helicopter can inspect 16 pylons every hour at a cost of £2,000 per hour, but flying a VLOS drone isn’t much better as it’s laborious and slow with a pilot below. On a good day, VLOS drone teams can inspect a maximum of 10 pylons. “It’s the human element that causes problems,” says Mark Simmons, National Grid’s condition monitoring manager.

Sees.ai is not alone in solving this problem, but the systems many other companies rely on use GPS and a compass for positioning. The problem is that these technologies are susceptible to failure, especially when close to steel or strong electromagnetic fields, which occur around high-voltage power lines. Relying on existing data can also be uncertain as the world is constantly changing.

According to David Benowitz, head of research at research platform Drone Analyst, GPS technology is also not always accurate, especially when used to measure altitude or in rural areas with poor satellite coverage. Because there will always be that “bubble of doubt,” he says, there’s a greater risk of collisions in busy airspace. With more vulnerability comes more risk.

The only way to introduce these technologies is to limit the risk in other ways, such as flying simpler flights away from potential collisions. But with each constraint imposed, “the applicability and scalability of the solution decreases,” says Benowitz. If we want to replace manned helicopters, we need to develop a solution that “doesn’t have these limitations”, that can safely perform sweeps and detailed inspections of assets across the majority of the network, not just remote areas.

For this to happen, there must be more reliable and robust technologies: every operating system must have multiple layers of security. “To be able to fly close enough to the poles to collect the best data, we need more intelligence than GPS,” says Hjamlmarsson. But there also needs to be change among regulatory bodies like the FAA and CAA to create room for these more advanced systems to be developed and properly tested before they can ever be proven safe. “It’s a chicken-or-egg scenario,” says Benowitz. “These systems are not the strongest, so there is no problem to introduce them at scale and at cost, but the regulations need to be updated.”



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