Thermal imaging to light the way

Thermal imaging to light the way

Rudie Opperman, Engineering and Training Manager EMEA at Axis Communications explores how thermal imaging technology is being used to protect electrical substations.

Like any critical infrastructure, electrical substations face several risks. These include intruders, vandals, hazardous weather conditions, and peak energy demand periods. On top of these, many substations are unmanned or remotely located, making them harder to protect from acts of intrusion, theft and sabotage. Electrical grids in the Middle East are also undergoing intense transformation. The region has substantially increased its renewable energy supply capacity, while major construction projects in countries such as the UAE and Kuwait will see more substations and associated transmission lines built.

As a result, utility sectors are increasingly focused on addressing issues to ensure the uninterrupted supply of energy to both residents and businesses. This requires a combination of monitoring for potential breaches and identifying signs of malfunctioning equipment.

Monitoring continues to be a largely manual job, but several energy organisations have been looking at ways to make it safer, more efficient and more actionable. Thermal imaging can support operators in their efforts, providing continuous, accurate monitoring of substations to improve security and safety, and facilitate operational continuity and efficiency.

Thermal imaging vs visual imaging

A significant advantage of thermal imaging is that it has no lighting requirements. Cameras allow you to see in complete darkness, as you would in daylight hours. This distinguishes them from traditional visual cameras that require reflective light for the sensor to pick up an image.

Thermal imaging is created by sensors detecting temperature differences in the heat energy that objects emit, and then translating this information into a visual image. Thermal imaging or, more precisely, thermal sensors are as accurate in complete darkness or dense fog as they are on a bright, sunny day.

As new sensors, materials, and improved calibration make thermal cameras more versatile, reliable and affordable, thermal imaging is becoming increasingly available to substation operators. While they are mainly used for surveillance purposes, such as detecting vehicles and objects, there are other potential use cases.

For example, monitoring equipment and production processes using a thermometric camera lets you calibrate the heat display with numerical data, that is, temperatures. Cameras alert you when temperatures go out of the pre-set range, which means faults can be investigated. In a region like the Middle East where extreme temperatures can place unyielding pressure on power grids, operators need to do whatever they can to minimise the risk of widespread system failure.

Daily operations enhanced by thermal imaging

Handheld thermography cameras can be used in substations to detect heat and provide a readout of the energy being emitted. These checks are carried out at intervals of between three to six months. While handheld measuring requires physical visits to the site, a permanently mounted thermometric camera offers an alternative to in-person checks by monitoring the relevant equipment day and night, all year round.

Thermometric cameras can alert operators to rising temperatures, as well as help conduct checks of critical areas to provide a greater understanding of the situation. Round-the-clock site monitoring using thermal imaging can help you identify a developing problem before it escalates in damage and cost, therefore positively impacting ROI. These cameras are set to become an essential piece of equipment for trend analysis, operational efficiency, and continuous monitoring to maintain substations and extract valuable operational data.

Turning the heat up on criminals

Compared to visual cameras, thermal cameras can better detect intruders with more accurate imaging and shape recognition. They achieve this by combining high-image contrast and AI-based intrusion detection. As a result, false alarm rates are kept low and unnecessary responses by personnel are kept to a minimum.

Thermal cameras can help detect activity in or around your perimeter, day or night, and play an important role in your security solution. A camera could detect a potential intruder, which would then trigger a PTZ camera to zoom in on the intruder and track them as they move around. Furthermore, audio deterrents such as horn speakers, or light deterrents like strobe sirens, can further help to potentially prevent a breach, or at the very least, slow it down.

Another threat to consider is drones. Drones are increasingly being used by malicious individuals to monitor substations, deliver payloads, and cause infrastructure failure. Drone detection is achieved using partner hardware and software, with thermal cameras complementing detection efforts and providing a more accurate view.

Building resiliency through security

Focus on maintaining electrical substations means increased site monitoring. Case in point, overheating equipment increases the risk of fire and explosions, which thermal imaging and cameras can effectively monitor. This improves personnel safety and can provide an overview of the equipment before sending engineers to the site. The addition of audio and light deterrents can further protect equipment from intruders with malicious intent, as well as those without (children who enter sites out of curiosity, for example).

Substations are integral to a larger system. When one fails, the ripple effect can be significant. Therefore, operators must implement multiple security layers for enhanced resilience. Thermal imaging is one of those layers, acting as a first response and allowing operators to avoid mounting incidents, and mitigating disruptions at the earliest stage.