In order to meet the growing demand for electricity, existing power line routes are being pushed to their limits. Power companies can spend years trying to find suitable sites to expand the capacity of their networks. However, few people want major electrical installations such as transformer arrays or high-tension towers in their neighbourhoods.
The industry would welcome any innovation that could safely and cost-effectively increase transmission line capacity, and BC entrepreneur Suresh Singh is focussed on bringing a solution for this challenge to market. He is President and CEO of Burnaby-based Smart Autonomous Solutions (SAS), a firm that is commercializing a novel sensor technology that should change the way that power companies monitor and maintain the electrical grid.
“If you use our technology, you will be able to increase the capacity of transmission lines by anywhere from five to 20 per cent,” he says. “That’s just a huge advantage.”
Singh is referring to a sensor that can measure and report the temperature of an overhead power line in real time, providing a much more accurate reading identifying whether the line is within its parameters for safe, stable operation. With such equipment in place, lines throughout the network could be tracked and data accessed by individuals in a central office rather than collecting this information through hazardous, expensive, and time-consuming field inspections.
Utility providers have tried to minimize these inspections by applying intricate formulas to estimate temperature, based on weather conditions around a line and the current load. This method includes large tolerances to make up for the lack of direct measurement, and companies know they are imposing limits on electrical transmission that are well below the actual thermal limitations of the lines. Without much more detailed input, these generous margins of error represent the only safe way to proceed. However, those margins could be dramatically reduced by the new monitoring approach being developed by SAS and implementation could be as straightforward as a one-time action to attach a passive electromagnetic resonator onto each overhead line. The metal in the line will expand as it heats up, and the resonating cavity dimensions of the sensor will likewise expand, providing a change in signal that can be calibrated to the change in temperature.
Utility companies could increase the useful load while observing safety guidelines as strictly as ever. In fact, these sensors will make it possible for operators to manage their networks in entirely new ways, using the collected data to make long-term assessments of the wear and tear on these lines, forecasting future usage patterns, and establishing improved maintenance and upgrade schedules.
“In addition to increasing capacity, the technology is going to be able to measure the core of the conductor and determine the life remaining in those power lines,” says Singh.
The enabling technology for the sensors emerged from work begun more than a decade ago at the University of Manitoba, which is home to the Intelligent Sensing for Innovative Structures (ISIS) research network. The campus also houses the Advanced RF Systems Laboratory, created in 2004 as part of the National Microelectronics and Photonics Testing Collaboratory, a National Design Network initiative managed by CMC Microsystems with the support of the Canada Foundation for Innovation.
Here, with the lab’s state-of-the-art RF testing and analysis infrastructure, Electrical and Computer Engineering Professors Doug Thomson and Greg Bridges conducted the RF cavity research that resulted in the design for the innovative power line sensor. “This problem is not a new one,” says Dr. Thomson. “There are other technologies out there, but so far they’re either unwieldy or pretty expensive. We think this has a real chance to be a winning solution.”
Thomson credits CMC with providing the essential support for this kind of research, which would otherwise be extremely difficult to conduct. “It would be virtually impossible for individual universities to put together the support package that CMC does,” he insists.
Singh was so impressed by the expertise and resources available through the university that he entered into a strategic partnership with the institution. Ownership of the entire patent portfolio and technology of this invention was transferred to SAS. The university maintains an equity position in the licensing of the technology. “When we do very well, they’re going to do very well,” he observes.
And he does expect to do well. Even though the construction of a working prototype is still underway, the introduction of this product is already capturing the attention of investors and end-users. Nor will the customers be limited to power utilities, as the technology has already proven its value for monitoring the health of railway tracks, and could likewise be used to keep tabs on intricate structures such as pipelines or bridges. “It’s an exciting technology with huge opportunity,” concludes Singh. “And the market potential is worldwide.”