Your local electric utility may be the next company to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a.k.a. drones, in your community. Transmission and distribution utilities are planning to deploy fleets of drones for power line inspections in order to more rapidly identify foliage encroachments on power lines, storm damage, and overloading in both urban and remote areas.
These types of inspections typically have been completed using manned helicopters. Since the Northeast blackout in 2003, North American electric utilities have spent millions to fly helicopters over their power lines to meet new grid reliability standards. Drones offer a cheaper and more reliable alternative.
At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) show in Las Vegas, a whole section of the exhibit floor was devoted to drone technologies. Forward-thinking utilities have picked up that point.
What They Need to Know
A recent article in Electric Light & Power discussed the utilization of light-reflecting imaging technologies that create 3D images of the environment, called Lidar, to more thoroughly monitor electric transmission rights-of-way. According to Duke Energy, “Lidar’s 3-D models tell us everything we need to know about loading on our lines and nearby encroachments.”
Innovative electric transmission and distribution operators have been working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to utilize UAVs across their systems. However, utilities won’t be piloting drones until the FAA finalizes rules that govern their safe operations in the National Airspace System. The FAA planned to finalize those rules by 2015 but is not expected to meet that deadline. Utility proponents suggest UAVs can make the nation’s infrastructure more reliable and secure, perhaps warranting an FAA exemption.
A number of pilot demonstrations of UAV applications and use cases have been occurring across the United States, notably with Duke Energy on the East Coast and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) in the west. The use cases for UAVs are not limited to transmission and distribution power line inspection; they also include critical functions such as:
- Solar PV panel inspections to identify damages to PV panels and schedule maintenance across thousands of panels. UAVs can find individual damaged solar panels amid thousands by using thermal imaging to detect anomalous heat signatures.
- High-risk jobs like scanning a wind turbine blade for cracks 400 feet in the air without human intervention.
- Improved power restoration efforts in the aftermath of major storms. For example, in 2012, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) suggested drones could assess damage and help bucket trucks and line technicians prioritize power restoration.
In 2014, the FAA granted SDG&E an experimental certificate, also known as a Special Airworthiness Certificate, for UAVs. That certificate allows SDG&E to use drones for research, testing, and training flights in lightly populated airspace in eastern San Diego County. “The unmanned aircraft system provides us with another tool in our electric and gas operations tool chest,” said Dave Geier, SDG&E’s vice president of electric transmission and system engineering.