Navigant Research Blog

Drones for Utility Asset Management, Part 2: Unlocking Future Potential

— January 3, 2017

Drone - CityThis post is the second in a two-part series. The first looked at regulatory developments in 2016 that are paving the way for the commercialization of drones for utility asset management in the United States.

Potential drone applications in the electric utility sector are vast, ranging from line and substation inspection to storm damage assessment and vegetation control. Drones mounted with video cameras, lidar, infrared, and hyperspectral imaging equipment stand to improve data collection and analysis, enable aerial mapping and 3D modeling of grid assets, and improve overall awareness of grid conditions.

Used strategically, drones hold promise to reduce inspection and maintenance costs, replace human workers in high-risk conditions, and increase the reliability and efficiency of grid operations. However, the market remains largely untapped.

The Future of Grid Monitoring

As the regulatory framework governing drone operations gradually takes shape, it is possible to imagine a not-too-distant future when drones are deployed for a variety of uses, including:

  • Monitoring vegetation overgrowth and risk, enabling quantitative, data-driven vegetation management programs
  • Replacing helicopter inspections of transmission lines, lowering costs and reducing the number of risky helicopter flights near power lines
  • Performing daily autonomous inspections of substations and other critical equipment, alerting grid operators to equipment damage, abnormalities, or maintenance needs
  • Surveying and assessing storm damage and other disasters, facilitating the development of targeted recovery plans and reducing grid downtime

These functions and others could either be performed by grid operators with in-house expertise or contracted out to drone companies in a drones as a service model.

Taking Technology to the Next Level

The potential for drones to transform utility asset management will increase as the technology becomes lighter weight, less expensive, more durable, and increasingly autonomous. Singapore-based H3 Dynamics offers an example of the possibilities presented by autonomous drone technology with its Dronebox system. The system consists of solar-powered drone charging stations designed to facilitate remote asset management with minimal human interference. Drones housed in the Dronebox can take off, land, and recharge autonomously and routinely, enabling the regular inspection of hard-to-reach transmission lines and other critical infrastructure. They can also be dispatched remotely on an as-needed basis.

H3 Dynamics’ Autonomous Dronebox

Dronebox(Source: H3 Dynamics)

Managing Big Data

Like other smart technologies deployed for grid monitoring and management, drones will produce ever greater volumes of data. One of the challenges facing grid operators will be translating that data into action to improve the efficiency, resiliency, and responsiveness of the power generation and delivery system.

Currently, grid operators are struggling to convert mounting volumes of data into real-time operational improvements. Making the most of drones for utility asset management will require advanced software systems and institutional processes to ensure high quantities of data translate into high quality action. While drones will likely save money in the near term (through streamlined inspections, displaced costly helicopter missions, improved storm damage recovery times, and reduced personnel needs), taking full advantage of the data drones produce will likely be a longer process with a steeper learning curve.


Drones for Utility Asset Management, Part 1: The Year in Review

— December 29, 2016

Drone - WindThis post is the first in a two-part series. This post reviews major developments in drone use for utility asset management over the course of 2016. The second will assess opportunities for enhanced utility applications in 2017 and beyond. 

2016 marked a major milestone in the march toward the commercialization of drones for utility asset management in the United States. Most notably, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in late August implemented new rules governing the use of drones for commercial applications.

Known as Part 107, the rule grants utilities and other commercial entities broad authority to operate small unmanned aircraft systems (sUASs) weighing 55 lbs or less without applying for permission from the FAA. Within 12 months of implementing Part 107, the FAA forecasts as many as 600,000 sUASs will be in commercial operation.

Limitations of Part 107

While Part 107 marks a major victory for stakeholders eager to harness the promise of drone technology, the new rules come with a variety of restrictions, including:

  • sUASs cannot be operated at altitudes above 400 feet or within 400 feet of a structure.
  • Operators must maintain uninterrupted visual line of sight with a sUAS.
  • sUASs may not be operated above individuals not directly involved in the operation.

These and other requirements limit the ability of utilities to deploy drones for tasks such as monitoring remote transmission lines beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS). But utilities and drone companies are already taking active steps to advance the path to commercialization of BVLOS flights in preparation for a more expansive regulatory framework.

Pushing the Boundaries

In February, Xcel Energy became the first US utility to conduct an FAA-approved BVLOS demonstration flight, using a UAS to survey transmission lines in the Texas panhandle. The utility is also undertaking a year-long research project in North Dakota testing the effectiveness of UASs for surveying and assessing infrastructure damage in disaster settings.

Following passage of Part 107, Edison Electric Institute and Sharper Shape, a California-based drone company that already flies BVLOS missions for utility asset inspections in Europe, applied for an FAA waiver to conduct BVLOS drone flights in the US utility sector. As 2017 gets underway and more waiver requests are granted, the number of utility BVLOS flights is set to rise.

Regulatory Developments to Watch

While Part 107 marks a significant step toward the commercialization of drones, development of a robust regulatory framework is still very much a work in progress. Other FAA developments to watch that will affect utilities include those governing commercial use of drones to survey and monitor critical infrastructure as well as related rules restricting drone flights near critical infrastructure in order to contain security threats. The FAA is also establishing committees to address safety issues posed by UASs and to develop rules governing drone operations BVLOS, both of which will affect utility drone applications well into the future.


Are Drones About to Catch More Air Among Utilities?

— August 30, 2016

DroneDrones are on the verge of becoming a more commonly used tool by US utilities to improve operations and management of dispersed assets. The latest catalyst is the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) new rule called Part 107, which went into effect on Aug. 29. Part 107 comes with some hurdles utility stakeholders need to be aware of, but there is a process that should prove helpful.

Essentially, Part 107 sets the rules for routine commercial use of drones, or small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), in the federal parlance. The aim of the rules is to open “pathways towards fully integrating” drones into the nation’s airspace, according to an FAA release. These rules apply to non-hobbyist drone operators who are flying drones weighing less than 55 pounds. The person flying such a commercial drone must be at least 16 years old and hold a remote pilot certificate with a rating for this type of drone, or be directly supervised by someone with such a certificate. A Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) security background check is also required of all commercial drone pilots before a certificate can be issued.

However, there are restrictions likely to frustrate utilities or third-party drone vendors who might contract with a utility to provide drone services. For example, a drone operator must maintain a visual line-of-sight with the drone; keep the drone below 400 feet; fly during the day; keep the drone’s speed below 100 mph; not fly over people; and not fly from a moving vehicle. The line-of-sight and daytime-only restrictions are likely the most onerous to utilities. However, there is a waiver process by which specific restrictions can be removed. That waiver process is supposed to be done within 90 days, but one could expect a backlog, particularly through the rest of 2016 and into next year, assuming there is a flood of waiver filings.

The rules make sense from a cautious regulatory standpoint, but have taken several years to emerge. The slow pace has the US commercial drone market among the laggards compared to other countries, and the US rules are seen as among the most stringent in the world. Nonetheless, the regulatory framework is taking shape, and utilities can make plans.

Beyond Cameras – Lidar

One of the obvious benefits of drones is the use of onboard cameras to inspect grid assets for damage and current condition assessments. But there is another non-camera advantage through the use of lidar technology, which employs laser light instead of radio waves to generate precise, 3D data that can create real-time virtual maps of areas—something quite useful for utilities and transmission and distribution operations. The expectation is that the use of lidar combined with thermal and visual data will pave the way for virtual reality (VR) applications. For instance, a transmission operator could remotely explore storm damage at sites or transmission circuit failures.

The upshot of this new rule is that drones are likely to go from experimental gadgets to important devices in the utility toolbox in the near term. The cost to send drones into the field to monitor remote transmission lines or substations is much less than sending a truck in numerous instances, and as with other new technology, there are likely some new applications not yet devised. For more details of how the drone market among utility stakeholders is likely to unfold, see Navigant Research’s report, Drones and Robotics for Utility Transmission and Distribution. It’s worth a test flight.


Automated Taskforce Developments Inching Forward

— April 8, 2016

police unmanned aerial vehicleDrones—also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs—are quickly becoming commonplace in today’s world, performing such tasks as delivery, surveillance, and agricultural monitoring. Drones are not the only robotics coming to the forefront, however. The DARPA Robotics Challenge encourages teams to make humanoid robots that can accomplish certain tasks. Last year’s finals took place in June of 2015. The goal of the DARPA competition, aside from gazing in awe at the future, is to further advance robotics.

Following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan, it became clear that there is a need for robots that can perform emergency tasks when it is unsafe for humans to enter an area. The DARPA competition had robots performing “eight tasks relevant to disaster response, among them driving alone, walking through rubble, tripping circuit breakers, turning valves and climbing stairs.” There are certain tasks that are impossible, unnecessary, or unsafe for humans to perform—robots are marching forward to fill that gap.

Filling the Gap

Many companies are also developing advanced robots for purposes of their own. For example, Apple recently unveiled Liam, a robot designed to disassemble iPhones for recycling. Liam has been in production for over 3 years, largely in secret. It was revealed at Apple’s spring 2016 product launch. The machine has 29 freestanding robotic arms, each designed to remove a piece of the iPhone. The machine has not been perfected yet—it has not been proven at full scale and is currently only functional for only iPhone 6s models. However, Liam represents a broader shift in clean technology. Companies are increasingly relying on robotics for assembly and, in Apple’s case, disassembly of products.

In turn, consumers are demanding more sustainable and recycled goods. Current recycling can be extremely inefficient, often involving a great deal of human labor. As a result of inefficient recycling, e-waste production in 2012 rose to a whopping 50 million tons according to United Nations estimates. A shift toward more robotics will make separation of recycling easier, faster, and more energy efficient, ultimately leading to an increase in post-consumer recycled goods.

The idea of robots rendering humans obsolete is one that has been played out in science fiction across the years. But we are entering an age where we can address the needs of a technology-dependent society with technology. The Industrial Revolution brought with it an unprecedented boom in human population as well as clouds of coal-fired pollution. The increasing popularity of personal, small-scale computing technology brought increased productivity and advancements in science, as well as a massive spike in toxic electronic waste. Nuclear power has brought electricity to millions, as well as horrifically dangerous disasters. It seems as though we are finally filling the technological gaps and patching the disadvantages of past technological advancements. Who would have guessed it might be by fitting a robot-shaped bandage over a machine-shaped hole?


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