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The Indian Power Sector

India is the fifth largest producer and consumer of electricity in the world after US, China, Japan and Russia. Electricity production in India (excluding captive generation) stood at 876.4 terra watt hour (TWh) in FY12, a growth of 8.1 per cent over the previous fiscal. Over FY06-12, electricity production has expanded at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6 per cent.

With the demand for electricity expected to rise quickly in the coming years, there is a need to greatly increase the country’s power generating capacity. Besides constructing additional power grids and networks to meet the demands, maintenance of existing power lines is also essential, to ensure minimal disruption and more efficient electricity distribution.

Helicopters – the more efficient choice

Infrastructural development in the hilly regions and rural areas of India is a challenging task. The construction, development, operation, and maintenance of hydroelectric power projects, power transmission projects, and telecommunication systems are all resource-intensive and time-consuming activities. Considering that all stages of these projects involve the movement of personnel and material in terrains that can be harsh and challenging, a reliable transport system is required. While the use of helicopters may seem to be an expensive option, it has been proven in Europe and North America that contrary to common beliefs, the utilization of helicopters is not only more cost-efficient, environmentally friendly, but also makes operations safer.

There are four major missions that can be carried out safely and efficiently with helicopters, ensuring cost-efficient construction of power grids and maximum availability of the electricity transmission networks:

Power line Inspections : Visual and thermal inspections of the power lines can help to detect failures and ensure 100% network availability. With the right equipment on board the helicopters, the crew and technicians can carry out routine inspections to identify locations of damaged cables and invisible hot spots. Such data helps to analyze the extent and severity of potential damage, allowing rectification works to be done quickly to avoid disruption of service. Helicopters can also be deployed after major weather conditions like snow and thunderstorms, for immediate line inspections.

Maintenance and Repairs : Maintenance and repairs can be carried out through Human External Cargo (HEC) operations – where workers are lowered onto livewires from a suspended platform attached to a helicopter. Such maintenance and repair works on livewires help to prevent a blackout situation. It is also an efficient and safe way to reach all parts of the power line, including seemingly inaccessible areas. This method has proven to be eight times faster than using trucks and cranes; and the use of certified equipment and proven procedures will ensure high levels of safety.

Pylon assembly and cable laying : The biggest advantage of using helicopters for constructing power grids, is the savings in time and resources. Especially where pylons have to be constructed in hilly or forested areas, helicopters reduce the impact on the natural environment. With special kits to construct the pylons (e.g. nesting kits) that can be lowered using helicopters, it reduces the manpower needed as well, significantly decreasing manpower cost and increasing safety level for the workers.

All related aerial work activities : Team transportation, logging, pruning, etc. are required to be done on a regular basis in maintaining power lines. Again, helicopters cut down the time and resources required. In addition, the helicopter also comes in really handy during situations of emergency requiring medical attention or evacuation.

Eurocopter and RTE – cooperation model for national grid management

RTE, an electricity transmission system operator, is a public service company responsible for operating, maintaining and developing the high and extra high voltage network in France. With 100,000 km of lines between 63,000 and 400,000 volts and 45 cross-border lines, the network operated by RTE is the biggest in Europe.

RTE has been operating Eurocopter helicopters for 60 years for its airborne operations, including surveillance, maintenance and construction of power grids. It is a leader in the research, development and certification of specific equipment and power line management methods that have been the reference worldwide.

RTE now has a fleet of 13 Eurocopter aircraft – 11 light and 2 heavy helicopters. The light helicopter fleet comprises nine single-engine Ecureuils used primarily for inspections; a twin-engine Ecureuil used mainly for aerial construction and maintenance; and an EC135 used for visits to power lines.

In 2011 when RTE established AIRTELIS as its subsidiary specializing in heliborne operations, they added two units of the heavy-twin EC225 helicopters. The EC225 was the first helicopter in the world equipped with an innovative new system that permits its pilot to control the sling used to deploy electrical cables during flight. This system, which is integrated in the helicopter’s cabin, was developed by Eurocopter especially for the needs of AIRTELIS. It enables the helicopter to carry loads that have contact with land or water, with their orientation maintained steady beneath the aircraft within a pre-specified cone-shaped deployment zone. The system will guarantee the highest safety levels for Class-C sling operations.

Working closely together, Eurocopter and RTE have been able to increase awareness and advocate helicopter operations and equipment for power grid management that not only save time, money and resources, but are also environmentally friendly with high safety levels.

Helicopter requirements

The basic requirements of a helicopter used for power line activities are power and versatility. It should have a wide cabin and flat floor for easy quick role-change, especially if it is also to be used for medical services or evacuation when called upon. Depending on the activities to be carried out, a heavier helicopter with more power would be required for carrying loads under-slung. Here is an introduction to some of the models in the Eurocopter range that have been popularly used in the power line segment:

Eurocopter AS350 B3 outclassing others

The high-performance variant of the Eurocopter AS350 Ecureuil (Squirrel/AStar) series, the single-engine AS350 B3, outclasses all other 6-seater helicopters for power, flexibility, safety and low acquisition and maintenance costs. The AS350 B3 is the company’s best-selling light helicopter in China for utility work, including power line survey missions. Being versatile and safe, this helicopter also excels in hot conditions and very high altitudes, holding the record as the only helicopter to have landed on top of Mount Everest. It is the perfect choice for carrying out surveillance and inspections of power lines. The twin-engine EC135 is equally popular for such surveillance and inspection works.

EC225 –the workhorse helicopter for power missions

Eurocopter’s 11-ton-class EC225 offers high speed and long range, as well as an unmatched payload lift capability. Utilized worldwide in applications ranging from search & rescue (SAR) for civil and military operations to offshore transportation in support of the oil and gas sector, the EC225 is a member of Eurocopter’s Super Puma helicopter family, which has logged more than four million flight hours around the world. It can lift loads of up to 4.5 tons for a wide variety of services, such as maintenance and construction work on overhead electrical power lines and airlift support at major infrastructure projects.

Building for the future

India’s accelerating economic activities will put further pressure on electricity demand in the coming years. The Indian electrical infrastructure needs to be improved, expanded and stabilized to prevent a severe power outage like the one that occurred in July 2012. It would certainly be worthwhile to study the RTE model and explore some heliborne operations options for India.

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