Unmanned Power Line Inspections
There has been a recent surge in the use of drones for a vast variety of jobs. U.S. utility companies have begun to see great potential in using drones to do the dangerous job of inspecting power lines and transmission towers.
This past October the Electric Power Research Institute put on a three day workshop for dozens of utility companies to demonstrate how the remote-controlled devices can make the work of Linemen safer, more efficient and less expensive. To help the utilities choose the correct machines for the job they used drones equipped with cameras and sensors to demonstrate inspections of transmission lines at a hydroelectric plant in the Castkill Mountains.
“We want to start using drones next spring when the inspection season begins,” said Alan Ettlinger, research and technology director for the New York Power authority, who attended the workshop.
Each year utility companies spend millions of dollars inspecting power lines, which are often in hard to reach places. The industry has been interested in the potential use of drones for years, but has been slower that European companies to adopt the technology because of U.S. regulatory restrictions.
While hobbyists can fly drones without certification, the Federal Aviation Administration requires special certification for commercial users. There are also other numerous requirements: The drone operation must have a pilot’s license, the aircraft must weigh less than 55 pounds, flights can go no more than 200 feet above the ground, and the drone must be operated in the pilot’s line of sight.
For safety reasons the FAA treats the operations of drones like any other aircraft and commercial operators face strict rules for getting permission to use them.
In 2015 there have been seven utilities that have been granted FAA approval for testing drone technology. Consumer Energy in Michigan conducted a series of tests over the summer using its own eight rotor drone and unmanned aerial vehicles operated by outside vendors to inspect wind turbines, utility poles and transformers.
“When you look at the amount of information we can gain to make accurate decisions about our systems, and look at the cost and time savings, this is a huge opportunity for us,” said Andrew Bordine, a Consumers Energy Executive.
Consumer Energy spends several hundred thousand dollars a year to have its electrical systems mapped and measured by people in the field. A UAV equipped with “lidar,” the technology used to develop driverless cars, can collect the same data and more at a small fraction of the cost and time.
“With wind turbines, you’ll have a couple of guys hanging off the blades by a rope a couple hundred feet in the air to do inspections visually, at a cost upwards of $10,000 per site,” Borduine said. “We can get the same results with a UAV for $300, without putting workers in danger.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 17 fatal work injuries among utility workers in 2014, but did not specify the cause.
Utilities ae not the only industry interested in the use of drone and UAV’s. Pipeline operators, oil and gas drillers, construction companies, and agriculture have invested in the use of drones to make inspection and mapping tasks faster, more accurate, safer and less costly.
“The main advantage we provide in small unmanned assets is safety,” said Mark Sickling, chief pilot for Cyberhawk, a drone company based in the United Kingdom that does aerial inspections for utilities and the oil and gas industry. It will be interesting to watch how the use of drones for inspections of power lines evolves over time.