A system that can be attached to a drone to carry out live inspections of overhead transmission lines is being piloted by National Grid and The University of Manchester.
Insulators are often made of glass or ceramic and protect pylons from the current on the power line to prevent the tower becoming live. They produce electric fields when in operation, which have distinct profiles that are altered by defects on the insulator.
A purpose-built electric field sensor system can be flown by drone near to a pylon to analyse the insulators’ e-field profiles and assess their health, without the need for circuit outages, lineworkers scaling pylons, or insulator samples being sent for forensic analysis.
National Grid estimates that the initiative could save £2.8m over a 15-year period through cost and resource efficiencies in transmission network monitoring.
The technology will be developed and tested in the University of Manchester’s high-voltage laboratory, which has been the testbed for developing technology such as improved designs of high-voltage overhead lines.
As well as optimising the sensor hardware, the project will create digital twins for a range of insulators to define electric field profiles under different conditions.
Nicola Todd, National Grid’s head of innovation, said: “We’re increasingly using drones as part of our activities monitoring the condition of our transmission network and innovations like this e-field sensing system mean there are even more exciting ways that drones could support us in keeping the grid reliable and safe in the future.
“We look forward to working with Manchester’s experts and test facilities to develop new monitoring tech that will help us keep the network in good health while saving consumers money.”
Dr. Vidyadhar Peesapati from the University of Manchester said: “With demand increasing, we need to maximise the resilience of overhead lines, the spine of UK electricity. The ambition of this project helps us address this challenge while moving the UK one step further towards a low-carbon future that ensures reliability and value for the consumer.”
Since 2018, National Grid has invested around £5bn to upgrade, adapt and maintain the electricity transmission network.
It plans to spend a further £9bn on the network in the five years to 2026, with additional multi billion-pound investments beyond that to 2030 to deliver a resilient network optimised for clean energy sources.