Aussie power line tech sparks breakthrough for bushfire and blackout threat

Paul Eyers
By Paul Eyers
5 Min Read

Aussie researchers have developed a revolutionary power line safety system which could save lives by preventing deadly bushfires and blackouts.

The Early Fault Detection system (EFD) detects and locates faults on a power line before they happen by reviewing the radio frequency signals the lines give off.

Some of those signals reflect early warning signs of a technical fault, which could lead to a power failure or fire if not addressed.

The revolutionary tech has already been rolled out in parts of North America and Europe and prevented more than 750 emergency situations, possibly saving lives in the process.

Lead researcher at RMIT University, Professor Alan Wong, says the device works by detecting faults before they even happen.

“You can think of it like a smoke alarm for the power network,” said Professor Wong.

“If you place enough sensors across the network, these sensors or alarm systems will send out an alert when it thinks there’s a certain risk in the network.”

The patented device developed by RMIT University in Sydney uses a data processing algorithm to identify precise locations of anticipated faults within 10 meters, enabling more proactive and cost-effective electricity network management.

An alarm system is raised when any faults are detected, allowing recovery teams to resolve any potential issues before escalation.

The system works 24/7 and retains its accuracy even during emergency weather conditions such as high winds, storms, or bushfires.

“The EFD system is a passive-listening device,” Professor Wong explained.

“It listens to radio frequency signals travelling up and down power lines. Failing assets on the powerlines generate some of these radio frequency signals. The EFD system uses the radio frequency information collected by the sensors to work out where and which equipment is failing.”

A cost-benefit analysis of the system demonstrated that for every dollar spent on the tech, nearly 5 times that amount would be returned in benefits as a result of preventing emergencies.

That’s another reason why the RMIT team has called on the Federal Government to fund the rollout of the game-changing equipment across the country to be installed on more than 200,000 km of power lines.

The EFD system is already working effectively as part of several wildfire mitigation strategies in the US and Canada, where the Australian-made innovation is in high demand.

On 7 February 2009, the Victorian town of Marysville was devastated by bushfire. The fire was allegedly caused by a break in an electrical conductor on a power pole near a local sawmill.

Victorian Jenny Pullen’s town of Marysville fell victim to bushfires caused by a break in a power pole’s electrical conductor in February 2009.

She welcomed the technology, saying it was a way to avoid repeating those harrowing events.

“We went to so many funerals,” she said.

“The bushfire took a huge toll, and there are still people who are trying to get over it and who will never get over it.”

During the technology’s trial period in Porcupine Ridge, Victoria, the system identified a previously undetected failing conductor at Michael Thorne’s farm.

He says rural properties like his are prime conditions for fire to spread, so any technology that can help avoid a bushfire breakout was paramount.

“In addition to the houses lost in a major fire, there’s the lives lost and disrupted. Fire can rip apart communities; it can destroy so much that matters.

“The idea of a fire ripping through my community is deeply distressing and something that I’m keen to celebrate. Any tools that we have that can help reduce the risk of the kind of devastation we have seen across towns like Marysville and others in Victoria.”

Professor Wong says discovering the fault at Mr Thorne’s farm was evidence of how the tech could change the fate of bushfire-prone communities across Australia.

“We always tell people that this technology can potentially save lives and prevent fires. I think in Michael’s example it captured all this essence. It has prevented a potentially catastrophic fire,” he said.

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Paul Eyers has worked as a journalist for a range of media publishers including News Corp and Network Ten. He has also worked outside of Australia, including time spent with ABS-CBN in the Philippines. Stepping away from the media, Paul spent five years sharpening his tools in construction - building his skill set and expertise within the trade industry. His diverse experiences and unique journey have equipped him with an insider view of Australia’s construction game to dig deep into the big stories.