Powerline ‘boldly goes’ as satellite technology helps dangerous fault prediction

Fundamentals’ joint venture, Powerline Technologies joins the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Enersyn project

With so much expertise and information gained from its Galileo global navigation satellite system, the ESA is arguably the best positioned organisation to help provide a location-based early warning system for the UK’s power grids. 

The Enersyn project was sparked, literally, by a 36-hour underground fire in central London that led to the evacuation of more than 5,000 people, caused manhole covers to explode and a power outage that brought parts of the London Underground to a standstill.

The source of the fire was traced to faulty underground electrical cables which then damaged a nearby gas pipe, a situation almost impossible to predict. According to Powerline Technologies specialist, David Brain: “There is literally no instrumentation in most local low-voltage substations – the first time a distribution company knows about a power outage is when a customer rings them up. And there are more than a million of these substations across the UK alone.”

That’s where the ESA steps in.  Using its satellite navigation technology, boosted by Europe’s EGNOS satellite augmentation system, the Enersyn project team is creating a standardised platform to monitor subsystems and power lines. If a power surge occurs, the system will take hundreds of snapshots of electricity current and voltage every second to allow further analysis that could help predict more serious problems.

According to David Brain: “We’re building on a previous project looking at the application of machine learning and signal processing techniques to power grid data, to provide electrical distribution companies with the fullest possible situational awareness. We want to provide a fine-grain picture that can then be analysed in various different ways, taking a multi-application platform model, equivalent to the way your smartphone works.”

Working alongside the University of Strathclyde and timing specialist Chronos, Powerline Technologies and the Enersyn project team will use sensors that combine a range of timing tools – including satellite navigation signals and the eLoran longwave radio system – to build up a data picture accurate to a few billionths of a second.  The analysis will be assisted by machine learning algorithms which are currently under development.  

Meanwhile, tech giant Google is backing a satellite-based project to monitor NO2, smoke and heat emissions from the world’s power generation plants.  Using Google.org funding, WattTime will use satellite imagery, including from the ESA’s Copernicus network, to monitor and calculate emissions. The reports will not only be sent to national legislators but will also be made available to the general public.