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National Grid launches trial to use drones and AI to automate asset inspection

The automated drones will be able to fly beyond the line of sight to capture the best data. Image: NGET.

The automated drones will be able to fly beyond the line of sight to capture the best data. Image: NGET.

National Grid Electricity Transmission (NGET) has launched a new trial using drones and artificial intelligence (AI) to fully automate asset inspection.

It is working together with 'deep tech' start-ups Keen AI and sees.ai to use automated drones flown ‘Beyond Visual Line of Sight’ to gather detailed, close-up images of assets which will then be processed to assess them for corrosion.

NGET owns 21,900 steel lattice pylons throughout England and Wales and inspects around 3,650 of them each year. Currently it collects still colour images of steelwork using helicopters and manually flown drones, which are then processed by a pool of inspectors.

During the 12-month trial, a fleet of connected and autonomous drones will instead be flown under licence from the Civil Aviation Authority. These will be under the supervision of remote operators in a secure Remote Operation Centre, but drone pilots will not be present on site as is currently the case.

“Working with innovators like Keen AI and sees.ai we are able to take real time data and use it to predict when assets on our network need attention,” Mark Simmons, conditioning monitoring manager at NGET, and pioneer of the trial within National Grid, said.

“This technology will be vital in the future as we connect more and more renewable and low carbon power, expanding our network and delivering world class reliability. We look forward to the technology complementing the methods we currently use to help our operational teams manage safety, inspections and maintenance.”

Using automated data capture would ensure the data is optimal for processing, increase the speed, efficiency and consistency of data processing, help NGET predict the future state of a pylon and the impact of any maintenance work, and reduce the risk and environmental impact of data capture, NGET said.

“We’ve been hearing for many years now how AI will automate and transform asset management; ultimately leading to reduced asset life cycle costs and a greener, more reliable network. I'm glad that together, we’re making it actually happen,” said Amjad Karim, CEO of Keen AI.

“National Grid has been conducting the end-to-end asset management process for steel lattice towers, from data collection to execution, for many years now and are seen by many as the leaders in this field. I’m really excited to be using sees.ai’s autonomous drone tech to collect data which hands off to our systems to automatically assess corrosion and propose maintenance or replacement work.”

NGET has been looking at a number of ways to update its processes and reduce its environment footprint, most recently announcing the installation of its new T-pylons and putting out a call for low-carbon alternatives to backup diesel generators.

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