Beyond transmission: How remote sensing speeds inspection and management of distribution networks
The following is a contributed article by Eric Merten, Director of Professional Services, Private Markets, at Quantum Spatial.
Electric utilities face many challenges to maintaining reliability and resiliency of their distribution networks. With so many poles to inspect and a boots-on-the ground process that has been in use for nearly a century, it's tough to keep pace with scheduled inspection cycles, much less become more proactive about maintenance and upgrades or address requests for 5G, small cell and other pole attachments.
While distribution network inspection has largely been a manual process, electric utilities have been using technology to speed and improve the accuracy on the transmission side of the business. For example, many utilities leverage LiDAR-based remote sensing technology for transmission line modeling, siting and vegetation management.
Remote sensing provides them with a multidimensional view of assets, roads, buildings and vegetation in transmission corridors, which improves asset management; ensures hazardous trees are identified, trimmed or removed; and helps identify suitable routes for new lines.
But these remote sensing technology and analytics tools have uses beyond transmission. Utilities have begun to use them to address distribution network management challenges, such as long inspection cycles, too many poles to inspect, an aging utility field workforce, regulatory and market changes, and deployment of advanced wireless networks.
Greater efficiency and proactive planning
High-resolution LiDAR and spherical imagery is now being used to analyze distribution networks. With this technology we can check on pole clearance and loading in a way that's significantly faster, and offers far greater accuracy and more consistent results than traditional boots-on-the ground.
Remote sensing, combined with automated feature recognition and analytics, are truly changing the equation for distribution network management, enabling utilities to do more in terms of efficiency, planning and management.
How does it work?
Mobile surveys are conducted using LiDAR and spherical imagery, which measure thousands of points per inch, compared to other aerial survey methods that only measure 30 points per square meter. These high-resolutions sensors enable collection of much greater detail about the condition of distribution poles, including height, whether they're leaning, what type of equipment is attached and the type of vegetation nearby.
This data can be replicated identically pole after pole, and year after year, to gain an understanding of the assets' condition, surrounding environment and use over time.
This detailed information can reduce the amount of time it takes for inspections. For example, in some cases, utilities can perform a full clearance analysis on 10,000 poles in just two months — four to six times faster than it can achieve with boots on the ground.
It also takes human error out of the measurement process, with LiDAR providing a "digital twin" with measurements that are systematic and repeatable.
This exact model of the poles at the time of the inspection is valuable when dealing with regulators, safety staff or when working with licensees that have additional equipment to attach to the poles.
In addition to the pole clearance inspection, data can be used to generate a 3D model of each pole that can be read by a third-party pole loading program. This process eliminates the tedious task of creating pole models one-by-one by hand, which can take over an hour per pole, and enables users to output 50 poles in 3 seconds — 60,000 times faster than conventional methods.
With this information, a utility's inspection process becomes more efficient. Remote sensing helps identify poles that fail to meet specifications, and enables inspectors to target areas that need a closer look, making their jobs more efficient.
What's really compelling about remote sensing is that the speed of inspections enables utilities to be more strategic on how they contract for maintenance and upgrade work. By more quickly identifying potential problems, utilities can address areas where safety concerns are most urgent, or infrastructure is at risk.
These proactive efforts will enable utilities to successfully undertake numerous initiatives — such as vegetation management and network upgrades — designed to enhance the resiliency and reliability of their distribution infrastructure.