In June 2018, Nicolas, Sterblue’s co-founder and COO travelled to Abidjan to launch a new project with the Compagnie Ivoirienne d'Electricité (CIE): inspecting distribution lines using drones and Sterblue’s artificial intelligence to automatically detect defects and equipment on these structures. Since then, African Techno Lab (ATL) - CIE’s partner - have been busy inspecting over 5000 distribution poles throughout the Ivory Coast using Sterblue’s solutions.
You can read all about Nicolas’ trip here and you’ll find out that, back in 2018, we ended this mission with a premiere: Sterblue’s first fully automatic inspection of two big 85 meters transmission towers!
A year and a half after our last visit, Sterblue returned to finish what we started! Here is the story of Louis Allen - Operation Deployment Engineer at Sterblue:
Sterblue is back in Ivory Coast to launch transmission tower inspections!
You guessed it, in February 2020, I was flown out to the Ivory Coast to kickstart the transmission grid inspection mission with the Compagnie Ivoirienne d'Electricité and African Techno Lab.
The first objective of my trip was to train the pilots from ATL to create flight plans and inspect transmission towers using Sterblue’s software solutions. The second objective was to present the Sterblue Cloud to CIE’s transmission experts and linesmen - allowing them to capture as much value as possible from our platform, to optimise their inspections and maintenance workflow.
The Ivory Coast is investing in its Infrastructure
As mentioned in the previous article on Sterblue’s work in West Africa, Outage Time per Customer (OTC) is the main KPI for assessing the quality of distribution and transmission grids.
The Ivory Coast remains the best performer in the region with regards to this KPI, notably due to the CIE’s commitment to quality and its fleet of maintenance workers and linesmen. However there is still room for improvement. Power cuts are frequent, as I experienced them almost daily.
Improvements can be accomplished by having a robust, agile and efficient inspection process. An effective way for large companies such as the CIE to remain agile, especially on innovative topics, is to form partnerships with specialised companies. African Techno Lab is a perfect example of this. ATL is specialised in flying drones and aerial image capture. They have been using Sterblue’s solutions for over a year to inspect CIE’s distribution lines.
One of my main tasks was to ensure that ATL’s pilots were equally able to safely and efficiently inspect transmission towers.
What’s the point of inspecting power grids?
Be it distribution or transmission, power grids need inspecting to prevent any potential failures or safety issues, but also to ensure the best possible service. The frequency at which the grids need to be inspected varies with a number of factors. Regularly scheduled inspections take place every few years, depending on the environment and company policy.
In this part of the world, vegetation grows at an incredible pace. Palm trees for example, can grow up to 6m per year, and usually have to be cut down to the root twice a year to avoid any contact with the infrastructure. The heat and humidity are also infrastructure killers, favouring rust, wear and general degradation.
For all of the aforementioned reasons, regular grid inspections are key to providing quality service to the customers, notably by minimising OTC.
A whole new world (for me)
During Sterblue’s last visit to the Ivory Coast, the rainy season was in full swing, as can be seen by the state of Nicolas below. The rain brought with it a number of challenges which you can check out in our previous article.
I had no such problem, well… no rain at least! Mid-February is the “dry-season” in the Ivory Coast and the heat and humidity I experienced when first arriving were somewhat of a reality check for me… or a slap in the face.
My first day was spent on the field, inspecting transmission towers with ATL’s skilled pilots and accompanied by CIE’s linesmen. The pilots had prepared their mission in advance as advised by Sterblue, and the linesmen were there to ensure that the CIE’s safety precautions were met. As the linesmen would later be analysing the images, they were also there to ensure that the images they required were indeed taken.
There are very limited spare parts for drones in the Ivory Coast, meaning that the pilots need to be extremely careful with the hardware - which isn’t easy considering the temperatures are dangerously close to the batteries’ maximum operating temperature (and far beyond mine). Thankfully Sterblue works with off-the-shelf DJI drones which makes this weight on pilots’ shoulders much lighter.
But the weather wasn’t the only challenge. The terrain was worthy of a rally stage. Each tower was around 500m apart, and sometimes in the middle of shrubs and palm trees. CIE uses 4x4 pickup trucks to negotiate these difficult conditions and often needs a machete to cut their way through the local flora. The local wildlife also decided to get involved in the drone inspection.
These challenges only served to highlight the talent of ATL’s pilots. I was thoroughly impressed with the quality of their work and professionalism, negotiating tough conditions and overheating batteries with great poise. This, paired with the efficiency gained from using Sterblue’s solutions allowed for an impressive 17 towers to be inspected on the first day, in a very challenging environment. Between 30 and 40 pictures were taken for each of these 40m 225kV towers.
This productivity was far from being a fluke, as over 250 towers have now been inspected since February using Sterblue’s solutions.
Training transmission experts to use the Sterblue Cloud
I’m glad to report that the second part of my trip was mostly spent indoors, in air conditioned offices. I spent two days with CIE’s experts and linesmen in order to train them on the Sterblue Cloud.
First of all, I collected the experts’ feedback, insights and requirements, including the type of defects that they were looking for with company-specific names and maintenance policies. This information allows Sterblue to cater our solutions to the customer’s specific needs.
Following this, based on their feedback, I was able to present the Sterblue Cloud and ensure the experts’ were able to capture as much value as possible. Having a centralised platform for power grid inspections will help to streamline the CIE’s maintenance workflow, hence improving the quality of their service.
It was a real pleasure to spend time with CIE’s linesmen, who were extremely knowledgeable and insightful.
Onwards and upwards
I spent my last few days in the Ivory Coast with ATL’s pilots, showing them how to generate flight plans using Sterblue’s automatic 3D flight technology, as well as teaching them to master the automatic flight in real life. Working with these talented young pilots was the perfect way to end my trip, their enthusiasm was truly inspiring!
"Working with Sterblue allows us to have a fluid workflow from flight planning to image analysis. And therefore to be more efficient in the field." Dieudonne Pre, Drone Pilot at African Techno Lab
I’m confident now that Sterblue’s partnership with ATL and the CIE will contribute to the ever-improving service quality throughout the Ivory coast, by ensuring that inspections are carried out safely and efficiently.
Furthermore, Sterblue’s AI is continually improving and learning about the CIE’s transmission tower defects. Soon it will be able to automatically raise alerts on the most damaged towers, helping the CIE to provide even more value to its customers.