National Grid and University of Manchester pilot drone-mounted electric field sensors for pylon inspections

  • Innovative tech to analyse high voltage overhead line insulators’ electric field for defects
  • Project aims to engineer drone-mountable system to carry out inspections
  • Cost savings could be in the region of £2.8 million versus traditional methods

National Grid and The University of Manchester are working together to develop a new drone-mountable system that will allow live inspections of overhead transmission line insulators using electric field (e-field) sensor technology.

The three-year, £1.1 million innovation project, funded by Ofgem’s Network Innovation Allowance (NIA), aims to deliver an airborne system that can carry out real-time monitoring of the condition of high-voltage insulators, which could save time and cost compared with traditional ground patrols.

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 that have distinct profiles, which are altered by defects on the insulator.

A purpose built electric field sensor system could be flown by drone near to a pylon to analyse insulators’ e-field profiles and assess their health, without the need for circuit outages, line workers scaling pylons or insulator samples being sent for forensic analysis.

It’s estimated the initiative could save £2.8 million 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 is equipped with facilities that can test up to 600kV DC, 800kV AC and 2MV impulse, and has been the testbed for developing pioneering solutions such as improved designs of high-voltage overhead lines.

Manchester’s research will be led by Dr Vidyadhar Peesapati, Sinisa Durovic and Professor Ian Cotton of the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, and Khristopher Kabbabe of the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering.

National Grid is also trialling autonomous drones for visual monitoring of pylons

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, design algorithms to best assess insulators’ condition, and will re-engineer and miniaturise the tech into a drone-mountable system.

One challenge the project is aiming to overcome is to develop an algorithm to assess insulators’ condition while distinguishing between the effects that pollution can also have on the electric field.

The project follows a separate NIA-funded project in which National Grid is trialling autonomous drones for visual monitoring of pylons and overhead lines – enabling detailed close-quarter data and imagery of equipment to be captured quickly and sent wirelessly for processing.

Nicola Todd, head of strategy and innovation and National Grid Electricity Transmission, 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 that ensures reliability and value for the consumer.”

Since 2018, National Grid has invested around £5 billion to upgrade, adapt and maintain the electricity transmission network. It plans to spend £9 billion on the network in the five years to 2026, with further multibillion-pound investments beyond that to 2030 to deliver an affordable, resilient and clean energy system.