News about digitizing infrastructures and automating utility inspection with drones and AI

The importance of vegetation management for utility companies

Overview of vegetation management conducted by utility companies

For utility companies, vegetation management is an important everyday task. It stems from the way power lines are built to connect power plants to the end-users. Power lines tend to travel the shortest way from point A to point B, to limit power losses along the way. This means that power lines have to go over and cross all sorts of terrains, like mountains, bogs, wetlands and thick forests. While constructing power lines in hard to access areas is already a difficult task, maintaining them and the immediate surrounding area becomes equally as hard. Here, vegetation management for utility companies means clearing the area surrounding the power lines and their corridors of all unwanted and possibly dangerous vegetation. That means cutting down trees that are too close to the power lines or towers, clearing bushes and weeds that tend to grow at a rapid pace and using predictive models to find possible future hazard spots.

Vegetation management activities:

  • Clearing trees that are too close to the power lines
  • Trimming branches that might pose a threat to power lines
  • Clearing fast growing bushes and weeds in the power line corridor
  • Using herbicides to limit vegetation growth in power line corridors
Fallen tree due to lack of vegetation management

Fallen tree in the power line corridor

When utility companies do not turn sufficient attention toward vegetation management, the risk of damage and outages stemming from the surrounding nature and vegetation grows multiple times. The most common problem that power grid operators face is fallen trees on lines. Both trees falling due to stormy weather or old age can cause serious damage to the power lines, by either severing the lines completely or catching fire on the lines and lighting the surrounding area. The same can also happen with larger tree branches, which can break or fall on power lines.

Fallen tree due to lack of vegetation management

Fallen tree on power lines

Another danger that lack of proper vegetation management causes is the threat of wildfires, especially in rural and forest areas. When only clearing the power line corridor vicinity of dangerously near trees, but leaving smaller bushes and weeds unchecked, there is a real possibility that over a short period of time the vegetation will overgrow and become suspect to wildfire. This is especially dangerous if any live wires should come into contact with the overgrown vegetation, due to branches or trees on the power lines, such as seen in the image above.

When power grid operators either don’t conduct regular inspections or only do limited vegetation management, the results will come quickly. Oftentimes this can be seen in large outages and blackouts occurring after larger storms, which cut down trees nearby power lines, in multiple locations. Or large scale wildfires causing immense damage to both nature and surrounding properties, stemming from lit branches on power lines.

Vegetation management possibilities for utility companies today

All vegetation management activities start by conducting thorough and conclusive inspections, that give a clear overview of the vegetation situation in the inspected area. In the past power line inspections were conducted by on-foot patrols or helicopter teams, but those proved to be less effective in defect detection, needed either hard labour or high running costs and their effects were limited in hard to reach areas, such as thick forests. That is why power grid operators and utilities, in general, use drone-based inspection teams for defect detection. Drone-based inspection teams can get a birds-eye view of the power line corridor and get close to individual assets, such as poles, towers or trees. This allows for greater defect detection, while also enabling the use of different sensors such as LiDARs and thermal imaging. They also help inspectors gain greater access to power lines, regardless of their location. Power lines in hard to reach areas such as bogs and wetlands can be inspected from dry land, without having to traverse shallow waters in boats for example.

Powerline crossing a bog

Once inspections are conducted, the collected data is uploaded to a specialized power line inspection platform, such as Hepta’s uBird. uBird allows grid operators to quickly and thoroughly inspect all of their inspection data in a custom made environment, see the results on a GPS map, get detailed reporting on the state of their grid and create automated work orders for their work teams. Grid operators can also automate their analysis by utilising machine learning models that Hepta builds for their customers. Machine learning models allow grid operators to analyse thousands of images for defects in a matter of minutes, thus dramatically shortening the inspection processes and enabling for quicker inspection cycles.

Vegetation management for utility companies in uBird

uBird platform used for defect detection

In addition to AI-driven defect detection in uBird, power grid operators can also use predictive analysis in uBird, which allows them to act proactively and avoid hazards even before they occur. This enables them to mark down areas most likely to pose a threat over the next year and clear them ahead of schedule, not waiting for the next cycle or maintenance period, when it might be already too late.

Using a combination of highly capable drone-based inspection teams, Hepta’s specialized power line inspection platform uBird for fast and conclusive data analysis and predictive analytics allows utility companies to upgrade their vegetation management activities to a new level. By implementing those steps, utility companies can make well-informed decisions, have a clear overview of their assets and avoid possible hazards posed by the vegetation.


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