How do Aerial Work Aviation Helicopters Keep You Energised?

Have you ever wondered how electric companies ensure every massive high-voltage electrical towers & lines are safe and providing energy? Patrick Ryan "Turns-on-the-lights" regarding how Aerial Work manned helicopters and their aircrews are a critical component of ensuring that the utility industry provides reliable energy around the clock!

Patrick Ryan  |  26th October 2020
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Patrick Ryan
Patrick Ryan

Patrick Ryan brings over 30 years of experience as a Senior Consultant helping government and business...

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Aerial Works - powerline inspection

The helicopter is probably the number one platform that ensures power is delivered during "Peak-Times" and after "Natural Disasters." Here's how...

With thousands upon thousands of miles of high-voltage transmission lines covering the earth, the more traditional ground methods of powerline inspections, surveys, and repair are proving to be both slow and costly. 

What is Aerial Powerline Inspection & Repair?

The book answer is aerial powerline inspection, and repair is the routine process of using aircraft (manned and unmanned) to assess and mend powerline poles, towers, cables, and more. 

Because Mother Nature likes to wear & tear both natural and man-made objects, it's ever more critical that utility companies and organisations track and repair the condition of every part of their naturally exposed infrastructure to ensure "the lights stay on." 

To emphasise the importance of this task, many governments require utility organisations to inspect and repair their infrastructure in a timely manner. The general industry standard and government requirement for inspections is a visual check every 1–2 years and once every 3-5 years for a detailed examination and repair. 

To meet this demand, Aerial Work aviation capabilities, like manned helicopters, are utilised to meet this critical demand. 

The primary task helicopters and their crews are asked to accomplish are: 

Inspecting and Surveying 

An inspection and survey is what it sounds like, a careful, thorough review with the naked eye or via a sensor of every single part of a utility asset. The primary methods of assessing the health of the power grid by airborne platforms are via either a passive sensor (Infra-Red (IR), Noise and Radio Detection, etc.) or active sensor (Laser (Lidar), Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), etc.). 

The information from these inspections allows utility firms to decide "when" and "what" to "repair or replace" or "construct" to ensure electrical power is not interrupted. 

Constructing and Repairing 

Besides inspections and surveying and knowing the status of the gird, restoring the grid across vast distances and in remote locations requires special lift, reach and agility. The principal work helicopter crews provide in this area is cable laying, structure repair, and construction. 

Without precision, robust and agile airlift in remote locations, the utility sector could not achieve its timely goal of expanding or servicing every mile of its power footprint, i.e., reaching every city, urban, rural, and unique austere customer.

Why are Helicopters a Perfect Fit for Aerial Powerline Operations?

As mentioned before, because helicopters are agile and reliable from an operational perspective, they significantly reduce the time it takes to inspect and deliver across vast areas. In general, they're twice as fast as vehicle patrols on overhead power lines that follow roads and 20 times quicker on power lines in terrain that is difficult to navigate or avoiding private property.

Additionally, the bird's-eye view allows aircrew to identify, monitor, and repair any wear and tear or potential risks, such as overgrown vegetation or deterioration on the topside of poles and towers that ground crews can't see.

What is the Typical Type of Helicopter and Kit used in Aerial Powerline Operations?

As with so many other specific Aerial Work aviation sectors (Agriculture Aviation, etc.), there is usually a preference of aircraft that suit the type of work required. In the case of helicopters and the powerline sector, the helicopter community prefers aircraft that are designed for hard-work and less on sleek VIP airlift like the Bell 430.

Inspecting and Surveying

Relating to aerial inspection, the helicopter powerline inspection sector gravitates to the following type of aircraft and kit:

Aircraft – The preferred class of helicopter used in inspecting is the "Light Helicopter." If you scan the aerial helicopter industry sector, you'll see many operators use the following platforms to maximise lift of the sensor payload but at the same time provide cost-effective endurance to cover large swaths of territory:

  • Bell Helicopter, Bell 206 Jetranger – A two-bladed, single or twin-engine light utility helicopter. The Bell 206 was initially designed to meet military requirements, i.e., light, agile, and rugged, i.e., a perfect match for powerline operations.
  • Airbus Helicopters, H125 Squirrel (previously named the AS350 B3e) – A three-bladed, single-engine light utility helicopter. The Airbus H125 was explicitly designed for Aerial Work aviation regarding operating in extreme conditions and being adaptable to many multi-missions.

Kit - When it comes to specialised systems used in aerial powerline inspections and outside the traditional use of Mk 1 eyeballs and binoculars, today's power line helicopter inspections, as mentioned before, are supported by stateof-the-art aerial sensors.

For example, one of the newer sensor configurations used is combining multi-systems (HD video, thermal, IR Corona, and ultra-high-definition imagery) mounted on the exterior of the helicopter and an operator workstation embedded within the cockpit or cabin.

Constructing and Repairing

Pertaining to less brain matter and more on muscle lifting, the helicopter powerline service sector also provides capabilities to repair current infrastructure and establish new powerline access by flying in prefabricated structures or laying cables. When it comes to aircraft and kit, the following is recognised as the core capabilities:

Aircraft - The favoured class of helicopters used in constructing and repairing is either "light lift" helicopters for precision repairs or "medium to heavy lift" helicopters for heavy construction. The following are common platforms used for such operations:

  • MD Helicopters, MD 500 Series (powerline repairs) – A five-bladed, single-engine light utility civilian helicopter. Because of its small size, stability, and agility, it's very effective in manoeuvering within inches of high wires and structures for precision repairs. At the same time, crewmembers can safely conduct repairs from the skids of the "Little Bird."
  • Sikorsky, S-54/64 Skycrane (Construction) – A sixbladed, twin-engine heavy-lift helicopter. Powered by massive, twin 4,500 horsepower engines, the aircraft is capable of lifting payloads approaching 20,000 lbs, which makes it ideal for lifting large/massive transmission towers, stringing wires, or delivering work crews, tools, and hardware to remote destinations.

Repair Kit - Not like the digital side of this sector, the repair and construction side of this industry leverages special tools and hosting equipment that you'll not find in any hardware store.

When it comes to repairing high voltage structures, the helicopter powerline repair community utilises many different methods or means for crewmembers to work safely and effectively between the helicopter and the utility structure. Some of the common types of platforms crewmembers work from are:

  • Ladders – A "helicopter linemen ladder" is a modified latter that is lowered and hung from a helicopter to the electrical structure. Crewmembers are either hosted with the ladder or delivered to the ladder.
  • Perches – A perch is a platform attached to the side of the fuselage or connected to the skids of the helicopter. The perch allows crewmembers to sit or stand while extending away from the aircraft to accomplish their required repairs, i.e., it's like "walking the plank" for a job!

Construction Kit - Regarding construction and installation, utility structures and cables are difficult loads to manage due to an irregular center of gravity. i.e., "swinging." Because of this, specialised aerial helicopter long-line rigging is used to ensure stability and payload security while slinging heavy objects.

Also, heavy-lift helicopter operations utilise or sling strops, nets, ropes, chains, slings, shackles, shingle buckets, concrete skips, and even at times a mobile fuel tanker for their remote operations.

Who are the Men & Women that keep you Energised from the Sky?

Compared with other types of aircrew members in general aviation, airlines, and even in the Aerial Work aviation community, the professionals who fly helicopters to ensure the grid is working 24/7 are unique in their skills and capabilities.

The primary type of helicopter aircrew members who ensure the electrical grid is inspected promptly and that everything is connected correctly are Pilots, Airborne Sensor Operators, and Aerial Linemen. The unique qualifications of these individuals are:

Helicopter Pilot 

On average, a Powerline Helicopter Pilot has a Commercial Helicopter Pilot Certificate or Licence, 2,000 hours Pilot-In-Command (PIC) time, 1,000 hours turbine-powered aircraft time and 200+ hours in the aircraft they're required to fly.

The type of specialised training and experience these pilots possess are operating in wire environments, wire strike, mountain flying, hoisting, powerline patrol, and powerline construction.

Airborne Sensor Operator

Primarily for powerline inspecting and surveying, an Airborne Sensor Operator (ASO) is responsible for managing the full inspection process, i.e., from planning, operating onboard sensors, and data processing.

The specialised training or experience ASO's require are flight & airmanship fundamentals, helicopter operations, aerial inspection fundamentals, sensor operations, and data processing, exploitation, and dissemination methods.

Aerial Linemen

Probably the most daring crewmember onboard an Aerial Powerline Helicopter. The Aerial Linemen, during repair and construction operations, is responsible for doing the hands-on work, i.e., constructing, inspecting, and repairing electrical high voltage lines from the helicopter, or transferring to structures to wire-walk on both energised and de-energised lines.

Relating to training and tradecraft, Aerial Linemen learn basic airmanship, crew communications, and the principles of helicopter operations. Additionally, Aerial Linemen have 3 to 4 years' experience as an Electrical Linemen, hoist training, powerline transmission knowledge, and knowledge of specialised materials & procedures used in powerline work.

Leaving the Lights-On!

As you can see, keeping the "Lights-On" when it comes to maintaining electrical networks, requires dull, dirty, and dangerous work. To meet this challenge, the helicopter is the perfect platform to support the electrical utility industry sector, especially in inspecting and repairing high voltage towers and lines.

Even with the growing use of unmanned aircraft by many utility companies, the manned helicopter sector still has a job to do.

Until unmanned aircraft can meet the same level of precision, robustness, agility, and heavy-lift that manned helicopters can provide, the helicopter will remain a mainstay in this industry sector.

With that, you can expect aerial helicopter powerline service providers and their dedicated pilots, ASOs, and Aerial Linemen will continue to "Hover" and "Hang-Out" for many years to come!


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