National Grid using artificial intelligence to check drone footage of 7,000 miles of wires and pylons.
National Grid has turned to artificial intelligence to help it maintain the wires and pylons that transmit electricity from power stations to homes and businesses across the UK.
The firm has been using six drones for the past two years to help inspect its 7,200 miles of overhead lines around England and Wales.
Equipped with high-res still, video and infrared cameras, the drones are deployed to assess the steelwork, wear and corrosion, and faults such as damaged conductors.
Historically, such work was undertaken by engineers climbing up pylons or using helicopters.
But John Pettigrew, National Grid’s chief executive, said the firm had now taken a further step and started applying machine learning to analyse the drone footage and cut the volume of material a human operator needs to review.
“That [the AI] will determine the overall condition of the asset and whether it needs to replaced or repaired. We are just developing this as a prototype. When we talk about digitisation it’s real practical engineering-type stuff we’re doing,” he said.
A dozen people are involved in the project, with the AI work only beginning in the past few months.
National Grid partnered with UK startup Keen Ai for the technology, and is now trying to hone the system to better identify problems. “The results improve greatly as we supply more images to the application,” the firm said.
The drones, which are made by DJI, are seen as a better option for inspections in areas where livestock might be disturbed by a helicopter or in built-up urban areas where it is hard to fly helicopters at low altitudes.
Pettigrew said such innovation would be vital in future.
As a regulated monopoly, National Grid has to operate under “price controls” set by Ofgem, which dictates how much revenue a firm can earn from investments ultimately paid for by consumers. The energy regulator has said the next set of controls starting in 2021 will be tougher.
While good for household energy bills, the changes will mean lower returns for National Grid.
Pettigrew said that while the company’s electricity network only accounted for about 3%, or £35, of a typical dual-fuel energy bill, protecting consumers was important.
But he said ensuring returns were reasonable under the new regime was key to attracting investors, he said. “Many investors today are global, they can choose to invest in the UK, the US or Europe.”
He conceded that the reforms would mean a smaller National Grid in future. “The changes are likely to reduce some headcount,” he said.