The utility industry has taken tentative steps to enter a new era of technologically-driven opportunities – along with its challenges – with the use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (also known as drones).
Electric, gas, and water utilities are increasingly interested in taking advantage of the capabilities of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to support their operations. Applications for UAS are numerous and include maintenance inspections, surveying right-of-way, evaluating asset restoration, and in the construction of power lines and plants.
It is through autonomous commercial drones that utilities are changing the way they inspect and survey generation facilities, transmission and distribution infrastructure, and terrain by enabling the rapid, repeatable and safe collection of high-resolution imagery. Some are using UAS for Visual Line-of-Sight (VLOS) applications, such as the provision of substation aerial views. Others are actively investigating the use of UAS to inspect transmission towers and power lines as an alternative to costly and potentially more dangerous helicopter deployment.
Many utilities use the capabilities of the UAS to supplement inspection operations performed by line crews, such as power line and substation inspections, and during routine vegetation maintenance. UAS are also uniquely suited to assess damage to utility infrastructure in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as a flood, tornado or hurricane. Utility maintenance and outage restoration efforts are greatly enhanced by using many kinds of smart technologies and drones are a key piece of this new story.
However, for utilities to take full advantage of the promise drones can offer they need to be able to operate them Beyond VLOS (BVLOS).
Securing authority to operate BVLOS is a critical step for utilities where in many countries the use of drones is either not allowed or is highly restricted. With utility lines and pipes spread over thousands of meters and across various terrains, BVLOS drones are more efficient and can complete inspections more economically, safely and faster than traditional means (typically helicopters and inspection ground crews).
BVLOS drones, equipped with cameras and Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) sensors, capture imagery that only a few years ago needed an aircraft, large sensors and a crew to accomplish. Today drones with sophisticated software can process the LiDAR images very quickly in cloud-based platforms so effective decisions can be made by stakeholders and relevant parties. It is, therefore, understandable that utilities are increasingly attracted to this gamechanging technology.
Asset inspection and maintenance
North American electric utilities are particularly eager to use drones to mitigate hazardous, time-consuming and expensive work of inspecting remote, often dangerous power lines and transmission towers. In one example, the New York Power Authority (NYPA) has partnered with a Canadian utility on drone inspection between Lake Erie and the Niagara River in an effort to make repairs that are quicker, safer, more environmentally friendly and considerably less expensive.
Solar power plants are also seeing a high rate of drone use. Drones give operations teams a birds-eye-view of the solar field with sensors outside of the visible light spectrum allowing the utility or IPP to find hot spots in a solar field. This allows much more efficient maintenance when looking for the panels that need replacing. Ultimately, this results in a more efficient solar field, with more proactive maintenance versus the more traditional approach of testing each panel on a maintenance schedule.
Another example is wind turbine drone inspection, which is set to be a billion-dollar industry in the next 10 years. Advances in operational intelligence (OI) technology as well as easing regulations will certainly help to accelerate this growing trend in utilities around the world.
Disaster recovery and outage restoration
While drones can help with the routine maintenance needs of utilities, they also have a place in disaster response and damage assessment. Drones can be quickly deployed in the event of natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes and fires, in order for utilities to get a sense of the damage to utility infrastructure, potential hazards such as blocked roads and unsafe bridges, and where repairs are needed most.
This allows utilities to dispatch the right number of ground crews to the right places, with the correct equipment and knowledge to make the necessary repairs and stay safe while doing so.
However, the promise of drone technology must be accompanied by oversight from regulatory bodies. Irresponsible operation of drones can result in catastrophic consequences, so the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US and the Civil Aviation Authority in South Africa have set regulations restricting the operation of these devices.
29 August 2016 marked a historical day for the drone industry, as in the US the FAA enacted the first operational rules for routine non-hobbyist use of drones. Named Part 107, the regulations allow anyone who passes the remote pilot certificate exam to legally fly drones for commercial purposes. By implementing Part 107, the FAA encouraged the notion that drones represent true value to a number of commercial industries, including utilities. Since this date, many US utilities – including Southern Company, CenterPoint Energy, San Diego Gas & Electric and Xcel Energy – have begun working with unmanned aircraft to examine power lines and monitor vegetation around their assets.
As the utility industry and governing agencies embrace drone technology, regulations will need to focus on areas such as:
• Spectrum allocation and communications interference
• Training and licensing of drone pilots
• Line of sight and beyond line of sight operations
• Altitude restrictions
• No fly zones and wavers during extenuating circumstances such as natural disasters
• Privacy, wildlife and private property considerations Whether it’s routine maintenance of utility assets or disaster response, the accessibility of drone inspections will help utilities keep critical infrastructure safe and the power on. ESI
Article contributed for publication by ESI Africa’s association partner, African Utilities Technology Council (AUTC), a non-profit trade association owned by utilities. www.utc.org/africa