In the case of UAVs or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles it seems that Ergon has just taken another step higher.

Of all the innovation on display at Ergon's Demo Day held at the company's Banyo facility on 10 July, it was the UAV that attracted a lot of attention from the more than 200 industry types who attended.  The Energy Solutions UAV team, who are well versed with requirements and the benefits of this aerial surveillance technology, were busy answering questions during the day and demonstrating the flying potential of Ergon's UAV of choice – the Asc Tec Falcon 8.

Ergon believes that if there's potential to cut operating costs and therefore contribute to reducing the upward pressure on electricity prices, then it's worth exploring. The reality is that two operators and an UAV have the potential to carry out more pole-top asset inspections in a day than a crew with an Elevated Work Platform (EWP). The potential became clear during trials at three locations across Queensland when 1600 pole-top inspections were carried out by a UAV. The traditional approach using EWPs will generally see between 10 and 15 inspections carried out in a day. The team with its UAV demonstrated that between 60-100 inspections can be achieved.  

The Falcon 8 being flown at the Energy Solutions gig called for both a pilot and a safety observer. The pilot positions the UAV with what looks like a sophisticated PlayStation controller hanging around his neck and can tilt and zoom the camera mounted on the UAV to capture high-definition video or images. The unit is electromagnetically protected and thanks to the stabilization features it can hover five metres from an asset without compromising the quality of images captured with a zoom lens.

With variable winds swirling around the high walls of Ergon's Banyo facility, the pilot did a great job showing how stable these craft can be in the right hands. Eight battery-powered motors mounted on carbon fibre skids (that point outwards to maintain a clear photographic field of view) form the light-weight but robust platform. The UAV payload is smart and includes GPS receiver, camera stabilizers, high-definition camera gear (video and/or still), and a battery that can keep the Falcon 8 aloft for up to 15 minutes. With a bank of spare batteries on hand, it's easy to see how one of these craft could be in the air most of the day.

And that day might not be too far away.

Energy Solutions Business development manager Marcus Leaver says the company is just weeks away from attaining the Civil Aviation Safety Authority's (CASA) Unmanned Operators Certificate which is one of two certificates required for commercial use of UAVs. Marcus says Ergon will be the first energy utility in the country to become a UAV operator in its own right.

According to information on the CASA website, of the 108 operating certificate holders in Australia there are currently 21 in Queensland with two registered from regional Queensland - Longreach and Toowoomba.

Applying the technology so innovatively is also likely to provide opportunities for staff down the track. There are employees who already hold the second mandatory ticket - the UAV controller's certificate - and others are certainly interested, including a boilermaker who has expressed interest in one day flying a UAV for the company.

Marcus says UAV take up  - including the utility sector  -  is on the rise in Australia. The Melbourne Fire Brigade (MFB) can deploy UAVs (it has two) to incident areas as part of an ongoing pilot program to stream live aerial video to the MFB control room. The interest is also strong overseas. In the US where UAV operations are tightly controlled, Amazon has sought an exemption from Federal Aviation Authority rules so that it can carry out private and non-commercial R&D with drones.  The word is that they'll be delivering goods to customers in a couple of years.

Marcus acknowledges UAV operators have to be diligent and well aware of both the safety requirements around operating UAVs and the privacy and environmental issues that seem to be constantly evolving. 

The journey to date has been a serious learning curve for everyone. 

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