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Heat Networks

District Heating - Maintenance innovation using drones

4 July 2019

Up until now, operators of the UK’s District Heating Networks have only had slow, partial or semi-reliable data available from which to map the condition of their district heating networks. Nottingham City Council have found a way to achieve a much better data service than this and have commissioned, a UK first, high accuracy thermal imaging aerial evaluation of its network via drone technology on behalf of their district heating company Enviroenergy.

District Heating - Maintenance innovation using drones | ADE market-news

Drones just a few years ago were buzzing in the imagination of innovative engineers and now have the opportunity to a play a significant role in district energy network maintenance when combined with state of the art thermal imaging systems.

This new and innovative solution offers;

  • Reduced heat losses
  • Reduced Carbon Dioxide emission
  • Financial benefits from effectively minimising losses of water and energy
  • A tool to create an overview of the district heating grid
  • Fact based enhancement of repair and maintenance routines
  • Customers receiving cheaper and more reliable heating

The Thermal Images  

Significant leaks in the hot water pipes show up on the thermal images as bright spots for everyone to see. Smaller leaks and other hot spots (like potential leaks) have to be identified by a trained specialist in thermal image analysis. With drones, it is possible to identify leaks as small as 1 cubic metre per 24 hours.

Leaks and other hot spots are localised with a precision of 20-30 cm, depending on the circumstances. This has proved sufficient for digging directly to leaks or pipe with faulty insulation. It is no longer necessary to dig long trenches along a street to find a tricky leak. Less excavation results in less disturbance to local residents. 


Using drones makes it possible to safely and conveniently cover the entire network up to the outer walls of buildings, including areas that are “inaccessible” such as private land with fencing. 

Typically, it is a small leakage that can run for years without it being found in the traditional way, and running up to 12 cubic meters per day.

This often means a major loss over an entire year at significant cost to the operator. 

Nottingham’s Approach  

As this is the first time this has been done in the UK there wasn’t an established provider of this service. So Nottingham City Council utilised our partnership with Innovation Gatewayto source a drone company, HexCam, which has 7 years experience flying drones in challenging environments, an innovative outlook and was willing to try something new. We also used our collaboration with the Danish Board of District heating to find and work with Drone Systems, a Danish company specialising in the flight and analysis of drone imagery for heat networks. With HexCam on board to fly the thermal heat camera, we established and managed the relationship between HexCam and Drone Systems to enable both the operating and data analysis requirements to be fully met.

The Personal View

Its great to be able to identify and lead on innovations such as the above to deliver tangible improvements to Nottingham's district heating business. If the governments vision of a larger heat network sector is to be realised we need initiatives like this to drive costs down and improve the competitiveness of these networks.

Its been a privilege working with the fantastic organisations listed above. In my view what makes these organisations great is the competency of the individuals working within them, without which, this project wouldn't have been as successful as it has been.

This article was written by Stephen Hayes, MIET, Senior Programmer / Analyst at Nottingham City Council
© Nottingham City Council

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