High-flying inspection system lands in Australia

July 2020

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Utilities in Australia are looking to the sky when it comes to avoiding costly network failures and bushfires, enlisting the expertise of investors such as Canada’s Aethon Aerial Solutions to monitor power lines.

Aethon Aerial Solutions designs remote sensing payloads and aerial camera systems for unmanned and manned aircraft that monitor the health and safety of overhead power lines as well as telecom towers and other infrastructure.

The Ontario-based company is now working closely with Australian utilities to help safeguard their networks against bushfires.

‘From a regulatory framework, Australian utilities are very progressive in trying to deal with fire risk. They recognise the need and are ahead of the curve,’says Aethon CEO, Alastair Jenkins.

This, along with Australia’s receptiveness to remotely piloted aerial systems and its low-risk business environment, encouraged Aethon to set up a local joint venture subsidiary. ‘The rules are published. You know what you need to do,’ says Jenkins. ‘The tax system is favourable, particularly for research and development and hiring people.’

Aethon uses the data collected by its laser scanning (LiDAR) technology to build 3D models that capture structures and surroundings in exacting detail.

‘By using LiDAR and high-resolution cameras to document each structure, you can build up a geospatial information system which allows you to document the safety and the status of every span, every pole, particularly in states like New South Wales and Victoria where there have been a lot of bushfires,’ says Jenkins.

‘Over time, wooden crossarms rot,’ he explains. ‘Insulators can drop off and if wires touch vegetation, they can spark fires. A wire dropping to the ground can cause an instant fire. Vegetation that’s too close to wires can combust. After the Black Sunday fires in Australia in 2008, the utilities were mandated to inspect their assets annually to prevent fires and prevent those liabilities.’

Fully automated inspectors on board

Traditionally, workers have inspected power lines by walking along the lines or scrutinising them with binoculars or photographing them from a helicopter.

‘Flying helicopters is not inherently dangerous but it’s high risk if you are flying at low altitudes continuously and slowly to do this type of work,’ says Jenkins. ‘Our model initially was to build systems that would fly autonomously on helicopters, with just a pilot and to evolve to the use of unmanned helicopters (UAV). We process the imagery and 3D LiDAR collected using computer processing, AI and machine vision to detect where there are issues.’

Aethon’s systems can monitor hundreds of structures a day – an impossible task, say, for one person with a small drone. Thus, Jenkins argues, while a helicopter is more expensive, its productivity is several orders of magnitude higher.

When it comes to safety, however, he believes drones are the future. ‘We designed the technology to transition to operating on a large drone – not a quadcopter, but something big enough to carry a larger payload so that the drone can be flown in place of a helicopter.’

The company is working on an unmanned, gas-powered drone about a tenth of the size of a regular helicopter that would fly the same routes and be monitored from a central base.

Local support drives investor interest

Jenkins believes Australia has the perfect conditions to trial the technology.

‘We’re working to try and bring that technology to market. I’m hoping that Australia will be one of the two places that we will pilot and prove the concept of using unmanned helicopters to do this work,’ he says.

‘Queensland and other Australian states are very pro-drone. There’s an urgency to sponsor research and development, to encourage you with tax credits and that’s a very significant driver for us if we’re going to establish an international base of operations.

‘We’ve established several multi-year contracts and we’re very seriously looking at making a significant commitment in terms of personnel growth, capital investment and R&D investment so we can start a true drone-based inspection program in Australia.

‘There’s certainly a good talent pool, and a lot of technical capability and expertise to leverage. And, there are great universities in all the states.’

In addition, Australia’s large, remote transmission networks are an ideal testing ground because Aethon needs to fly the systems for a period of time to demonstrate success. If a drone crashes in these settings, there’s little or no risk of a human casualty.

‘That allows you to test beyond line-of-sight operations much earlier with a very acceptable risk profile even before the technology is proven,’ says Jenkins. On top of this, Australia’s regulations for long-range drone flights are among the most flexible and advanced in the world.

Aethon is expanding its inspection technology to encompass all above-ground, long and linear infrastructure, including cellphone networks, transportation networks, even pipelines. ‘You just have to tailor what needs to be inspected to each different client,’ says Jenkins.

Making a move into the market

For investors eyeing a move into the Australian market, Jenkins suggests tapping into the offshore Australian government network, maintaining that the agencies and missions work hard to create opportunities in Australia for customers and investors.

‘It’s very practical help,’ he says. ‘It’s very focused and very much an all-hands-on-deck support infrastructure for making it attractive to set up base in Australia.

‘Austrade delivered very specific help to us, providing significant support in identifying where we might hire people, making introductions to various research groups, and setting up meetings. They also helped with logistics, expediting the transport of a very large system out of Canada and into Australia at a time when air traffic between Canada and Australia was very limited.’

Expansion into a new market is not a decision to be taken lightly, Jenkins warns. ‘If you set up in Australia you have to commit to letting locals effectively run the business as the time zone changes are just too challenging to try and run it remotely.’

Importantly, though, he adds, Australians speak the same language, ‘even if they do call a latte coffee a flat white.’

Helicopter fitted with aerial camera

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