It all started with a phone call that was forwarded through to Roel Stolper by chance. It was 1992, and that conversation – between Stopler, a researcher at the CSIR, and Eskom’s Wallace Vosloo – and their subsequent research collaboration have saved the power utility millions of rands and created a multimillion-rand business.
Vosloo had a problem: he was completing his doctorate in the use of different insulators on transmission lines – they sometimes look like a collection of stacked side plates or an upside-down bell that connect the powerline to the pole or pylon – but he could not see the effects of the insulator, whether current was leaking out, or determine how it was ageing.
Which is why Vosloo phoned the CSIR and was put through to Stolper.
‘I asked: “What do you need, describe it, and why do you need it?…#157;’ Stolper remembers.
The problem hinges on something called coronal discharge, an electrical leak from the powerlines caused by faults in the line or a defective insulator. But you cannot see this discharge, which is ultraviolet (UV) light, because it is outside the visible spectrum.
‘Corona discharges are in the unseen spectrum of the eye, so you need a kind of transducer [a device that converts one form of energy into another; in this case, it acts like a detector] to make the invisible visible,’ Stolper explains.
So the CSIR and Eskom, through these two researchers, created a camera that could detect UV radiation.
‘The very first camera only worked at night,’ Stolper says, ‘and it was used, but then we had a further brainstorm: How can we extend the operation time from night to day?’
Enter the CoroCAM, a corona detection camera that is now sold in more than 50 countries in the world. The applications of this little camera – which looks rather like an old-school camcorder – go far beyond Vosloo’s research project, especially because the researchers continued to tweak it, adding capabilities such as infrared detection (which is on the other side of the visible spectrum to UV).
Corona discharges can occur when there is a fault on a transmission line. If left unattended, this can cause the current to arc (it discharges into the air) or the powerline to breakdown down completely. There are tens of thousands of kilometres of transmission line crisscrossing South Africa. For example, between Cape Town and the power stations in the north of the country, there are about 28 000 kilometres of high-voltage transmission lines.
‘Typically, a line dip is costed at approximately R150 000 per event, depending on the line location, type and fault,’ Barry MacColl, general manager of Eskom’s research, test and development unit, told me in 2012. ‘This does not take into consideration the loss of supply to the customer or the substation equipment that is affected.’
Through the use of multi-spectral technology, or the CoroCAM daylight cameras, the inspector has three times as much information available, especially for internal defects.
‘The technology allows for a more detailed inspection with far more accurate detection, and having a single camera to do this makes inspection far more cost effective,’ MacColl said.
Dirk Lindeque, who was first introduced to the project in 1999 as its business development manager at the CSIR, states that the importance of corona detection is that you can find faults at a very early stage. ‘If there is a fault situation, the electric field at that point is higher than normal. At a certain point, it starts ionising the air [ionisation is the process by which an atom loses or gains an electron] and ozone is formed; nitric acid is released into the air as well,’ he says. This power is lost, effectively floating into the air, and this loss increases if it is humid or rainy. Although the power loss it small, it affects the transmission line components around it.
‘If the power utilities don’t know that there is a corona or a fault, they will leave the insulator and expect it to last 50 years … but because of the damage it might only last 10 years,’ says Lindeque.
But with the CoroCAM, maintenance operators can image the fault before it becomes a serious issue.
The problem for the CSIR’s CoroCAM team was that the technology became so popular. Lindeque says: ‘We suddenly found ourselves earning money as a business inside the research institution, and there was a lot of pressure on me to commercialise the product.’
This is why, in 2008, the technology was spun out into a standalone company, Uvirco – the Ultra-Violet, InfraRed Company – with Lindeque at the helm.
‘At that time, we were not able to serve clients within the corporate structures of the CSIR,’ recalls Stolper, who now holds the international patent to the technology. ‘It was decided to spin it out … and the CoroCAM team split up: the research and development team remained at the CSIR, and a production team was formed … the core of the new team of Uvirco.’
Lindeque praises this model, saying that ‘the CSIR carries on with technology development, and once it becomes a viable product, they have the right to license that to us [at Uvirco] to develop’.
The CoroCAM is present in more than 50 countries; in fact, about 95% of Uvirco’s cameras are exported. The company, which has an annual turnover of approximately R40 million, has about 36 distributors. Lindeque jokes that ‘we deal with them, they deal with their customers. That way we don’t need to learn Chinese, Russian, Japanese and French.’
The CoroCAM – which has now gone through many makeovers, with the CoroCAM 8 available in late 2015 – is assembled, tested and qualified in South Africa, and Lindeque is quick to note that ‘all the manufacturing of mechanical parts, reworks and covers is all made in South Africa’, with more than 50 local suppliers. However, the heart of the CoroCAM, the detector, is imported from overseas and counts for about 50% of the hardware costs. Lindeque says they are planning to move the manufacture of the lens, currently made in Switzerland, to South Africa.
Sales of these cameras continue to grow. In 2012, Uvirco was selling 30 cameras a year, and just three years later that number was closer to 80, although, says Lindeque, ‘When we started, we were happy with selling five cameras a year.’
These cameras are well beyond the price of the person in the street, though. Your basic CoroCAM, with no bells and whistles and showing only the visible and UV spectrum, will put you back €45 000. The handheld multi-spectral camera, which includes infrared, will cost you between €60 000 and €70 000.
But for the power utilities that use them, the capital expenditure is worth it. The alternative is spending millions, possible billions, on fixing equipment that you expected to last for another 30 or 40 years.
Innovation: Shaping South Africa Through Science is published by Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs) and Pan Macmillan.