Tiny Helicopter Helps Electricity Engineers

25 May 2010, 10:29

Engineers from Southern Electric Power Distribution are pioneering a high flying idea in Hampshire which could revolutionise the way parts of the firm's electricity network are maintained.

For the first time, engineers are using a remotely controlled helicopter, guided by satellite technology, to patrol long stretches of overhead electricity lines in rural parts of the county. Equipped with a camera, it enables the operator to identify parts of the line which need maintenance or repairs. Engineers can then be despatched more quickly to carry out the work, ensuring that the lights stay on for Southern Electric customers.

The 4ft long helicopter, which weighs less than 7kg, is despatched by an operator on a pre-programmed flight route at a fixed height and position above overhead lines. It is fitted with a high tech camera capable of recording images of up to 15 mega pixels - more than twice the resolution of a typical digital camera.

As it flies it sends live video pictures to a second operator watching a screen.  On the screen he can see the images the camera is capturing and advise on adjustments to its flight path. 

Peter Dale, from the firm's Operations Production Group, said using technology in this new and innovative way was likely to bring significant safety and investment benefits to both the company and its customers.

"As a company, we carry out lots of inspections, maintenance and planning tasks which require employees to work at height," he explained. 

"Inspecting overhead lines is just one example, where we have to physically climb each pole, using safety harnesses and scaffolding or use high rise platforms.  If it is high voltage, the electricity also has to be switched to another line. 

"Using this helicopter is not only vastly quicker, it also means our people don't have to work at height. We can inspect up to ten poles in 20 minutes - a task which could otherwise take all day. It generates a big saving, which can be invested back into our network, and we can divert additional manpower to other jobs."

Whilst the technology itself is not brand new, it is the first time it will be used on electricity networks in the Southern Electric region, which covers the whole of the central south of England.

The helicopter, which runs on re-chargeable battery power, could potentially be fitted with other useful equipment such as specialist video equipment or infra-red cameras which can detect heat spots.

Southern Electric has conducted lengthy trials in all parts of its network, and has created a dedicated team of trained operators.  The helicopter has started to patrol parts of the network around Winchester.