A project for the use of drones in inspections at the company's distribution and transmission networks is under development at Neoenergia. The initiative stands out for integrating several technologies in one device, such as thermo vision, 3D mapping and geo-referencing, in addition to bringing two important differentials not yet available in the electric sector: analysis of vegetation growth in a mobile environment and study of the corona effect, which allows the identification of the need for tree pruning and the overheating of the lines, respectively. Allied to this, the equipment will feature self-loading technology and will be integrated into a smart management system. The project, which is an achievement of the Research and Development program (R&D), regulated by the National Electric Energy Agency (ANEEL), will allow concessionaires to carry out preventive and predictive maintenance of the networks with increased accuracy, reinforcing the reliability of the energy supply.
The drone, or UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), will be a modular platform. “This means that the system can add several functions, or modules, according to the need, for diagnosis, inspection and automatic record of electric assets", informs Neoenergia's corporate manager of Research and Development, José Antonio Brito. Thus, field teams will use drone for periodic inspections and operators are able to identify faults in the network, acting to avoid possible occurrences. It is also possible to use the equipment in construction inspection - UAV views cables, sends information to the system and makes a comparison with what was planned in the project. Other use of innovation is in updating the company's system, by identifying networks that are not registered, in addition to acting in prospecting for losses - i.e., network assets that are unduly used with clandestine connections.
One of the differentials of UAV functionalities is the monitoring of vegetation growth in a mobile way. Today, the options in the electric sector provide this analysis only from a fixed point, such as a park or square. With Neoenergia's innovation, the mapping will become mobile. This will be possible by combining the technologies already existing in agriculture - for soil analysis and cultivation - with the tools for studying fixed vegetation. The result is that the drone, when flying over an area, will identify the type of tree existing at the site and cross-check the information with the system's database, which points out the average growth time of that species - 5 cm per year, for example - and its distance from the power grid. Based on this, it is possible to specify when it will be necessary to prune the tree before it reaches the wiring, contributing to the integrity of the energy network.
Other innovation in place in Neoenergia project is the development of sensors to study the corona effect, a phenomenon in electricity that causes overheating in the transmission lines and reduces the equipment's useful life. In addition to this analysis, thermo vision technology is added, for identifying heating of the cables, which can generate rupture or failure in the insulation and generate power interruption. The drone will also be able to make geo-referencing, responsible for informing the exact coordinates of the network equipment and 3D mapping, which allows a more accurate view of the field.
“All of these elements will feature an smart integrated management system, capable of running specific computer vision algorithms, augmented reality, in addition to artificial intelligence, which allow the control and monitoring of all activities by the operator in an optimized and centralized way, with image processing in a single database", says Neoenergia's project manager, Jonatan Delfino.
The manager takes the opportunity to highlight that Neoenergia's UAV is being developed in compliance with all safety standards of the National Civil Aviation Agency (ANAC), since the device makes flight plans. Thus, in the event of any occurrence, the drone can be activated remotely by the operation team to travel through a specific location. When making the flight plan, the drone scans the region, automatically detects failures and notifies the operator, who can make agile decisions based on this information.
The project also provides for the study of several possibilities for self-loading of the drone. One of them would use the direct contact charging methodology, which can be made in the distributor's own vehicle that performs the field survey. The other option is to carry out the charge by radio frequency, through the electromagnetic field generated from the electricity cables. With the installation of a receiver on the drone, its proximity to the network - without touch - would provide the recharge by capturing the frequency. We also study the loading through fixed or mobile base. With that, a base would be installed on poles or close to substations. In this option, solar energy would power the battery, which in turn charges the drone.
UAV development is in the initial research phase and is expected to be completed in December 2023. At the end, the initiative will deliver three drones and their respective smart systems for use in Neoenergia's distributors.