When James Bangay started working for Ergon Energy as an electrical engineer he expected to spend his working life designing power reticulation systems.
Still with Ergon, he is now in charge of one of the world’s biggest geospatial data capture exercises which is also one of two development projects worldwide for Google’s Earth Builder service.
“No engineer likes to admit they’ve made a transition to IT, but this is certainly engineering technology at its best,” Bangay says.
Ergon distributes electricity across 1.7 million square kilometres — covering 97 per cent of Queensland and several Torres Strait islands — via its prime asset and major management challenge: 150,000 kilometres of transmission lines held up by about a million poles. It has about 1.5 poles per customer and covers more area per customer than any other power utility in the world.
As general manager of Ergon’s Remote Observation Automated Modelling Economic Simulation (ROAMES) Group, Bangay is about to flick the switch on a spatial data collection project that will capture light detection and ranging (LIDAR) and photographic reference images of the whole network each year.
Power utilities are on the verge of their greatest transition ever
The annual snapshots will inform network maintenance planning and provide a platform to develop predictive models.
“The biggest challenge is interpreting the volume of data we receive to identify where we have potential issues with vegetation,” Bangay says.
The budget is $4 million a year, which Bangay says will be recouped directly in savings as the imagery enables Ergon to optimise the timing and location of work to control vegetation encroaching on its lines.
Two purpose-designed planes are expected to gain certification from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority this month. Before the end of the year they will begin capturing data over 400 metre-wide strips in the remote outreaches of Ergon’s network where ‘single wire earth return lines’ serve isolated homesteads, pump stations, and other facilities. Before the end of 2012 they will have traversed almost 20,000 kilometres per month to cover the whole network, and be set to go around again.
The enabling technology to ensure the pilots can fly safely at an altitude of just 500 metres and maintain the aircraft’s orientation to keep the sensors on target comes from the Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information (CRCSI).
CRCSI’s business development manager, George Curran, says the organisation developed a cruise control autopilot system that takes account of a range of variables including aircraft dynamics, speed, height, sensor diffusion, and the LIDAR footprint and intensity.
“It was not previously cost-effective to capture LIDAR data of powerlines from fixed wing aircraft,” Curran says.
“We also developed a flight path planning system that would plan the shortest route to cover the whole network.”
The single pilot planes will fly two flights of up to four hours each day, gathering data at the rate of at least a gigabyte every minute. The raw data — amounting to between 100 terabytes and a petabyte each year — will be stored by the Queensland Cyber Infrastructure Foundation and made available to the CRCSI.
“Because powerlines are near all other infrastructure, that infrastructure is captured as we fly, and our intention is to make that information available for research by CRCSI so we can better understand other infrastructure,” Bangay says.
“What is likely to be shared is the intellectual property about how we do this, and that’s what the CRC is all about.”
The LIDAR data will be captured at a density of 40 points per square metre. The CRCSI is developing feature extraction processes and algorithms to enable the detection and identification of more complex single features.
Curran says the project will demonstrate the ability to undertake large scale data capture and provide a platform to autonomously process, manage, and apply the data to inform other spatial information projects.
“This is great research and very relevant and we are very proud that it’s a world first and it’s here in Australia.”
As data is processed and refined it will be stored in Google’s Cloud. “Rather than hosting that in our own GIS [geographic information system] environment and then worry about streaming it out to our handheld devices in the field, Google Earth Builder allows us to host it in a secure environment in the Cloud,” Bangay says.
He sees the first operational year of the ROAMES project as one step in a major revolution for the energy sector, as better information enables better management and planning.
“I wouldn’t choose a career other than in energy right now because power utilities are on the verge of their greatest transition ever.
“We have a big challenge to reduce the cost of energy and the impact of energy on the environment; they are probably the world’s biggest problems.
“It’s all about how we manage information to help us optimise how and when we build infrastructure.”
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