Popular media is highlighting the controversy around unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)/drones in public airspace, as these devices are disrupting scheduled airline flight patterns near major airports, interfering with planes in wildfire zones, and even interfering with privacy concerns. Yet, the drive to establish commercial uses for drone technology is proceeding at a rapid pace. Companies like Amazon are seeking airspace regulations that establish corridors for commercial drone-based delivery applications. At the same time, transmission and distribution (T&D) operators and utilities across the globe are beginning to look toward UAVs to reduce costs, improve safety, and increase reliability and response times across their T&D systems. These new utility solutions include major operations such as overhead visual transmission line maintenance inspections, T&D storm damage assessment and outage management/response, substation inspection, asset monitoring and condition maintenance, and vegetation management.
While all these applications and use cases sound like ideal methods for utilities to improve their operations and reduce their costs, there are some significant issues that are bringing the adoption of new T&D procedures to a virtual crawl. The typical utility today utilizes line crews and sometimes helicopters to complete T&D line inspections and maintenance, semi-rapidly do storm damage assessments, update asset management systems, and make decisions on vegetation management. As you can imagine, these approaches are cost-intensive, with line crews heading out on search and locate assignments and helicopters being deployed at costs of up to $1,500 per hour.
Many forward-looking utilities are looking at both multi-rotor and fixed-wing UAVs to not only reduce maintenance and operations (M&O) inspection and vegetation management costs, but also improve response times during outages caused by major storms and other events. Although these savings can be significant, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulatory hurdles and permit and flight approval processes create barriers to this market literally taking off. Under current regulations, the FAA is granting limited-scale pilot project permits for a small number of U.S. utilities, including but not limited to San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), ComEd, Duke, Xcel, and Florida Power & Light Company (FPL). Pilot projects are typically limited to small regions or T&D training facilities. Like Amazon’s proposal that commercial UAV flight corridors be established for delivery services, T&D utilities will need the same, allowing companies to fly drones over T&D systems for both planned M&O and storm damage assessments necessary for outage restoration. In addition, the flight approval process for UAVs must be streamlined, as flight plans currently need to be filed with the FAA 72 hours earlier, clearly precluding timely storm assessment and outage restoration responses. These hurdles must be addressed for the UAV market with T&D utilities to take off over the next 10 years.
A number of UAV companies are already positioning themselves for the expansion of this market, including startups like Google-funded Skycatch and an interesting company in Colorado, FLōT Systems. The latter has established key partnerships with both inspection services companies and analytics software providers.
I’m currently writing a report on UAVs/drones and robotics for T&D applications. While I expect the companies manufacturing UAVs and related sensor technologies to do extremely well, I also anticipate that the complex analytics software companies analyzing streaming visual and thermal data, as well as the inspection services companies, will benefit. Look for my continued discussions about emerging technologies across the global T&D landscape in upcoming blogs and reports.
Tags: Drone Technology, Emerging Technologies, Grid T&D, Policy & Regulation, Utility Transformations
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