• Drone Technology
  • Wind Turbines
  • Utilities
  • Digital Future of Utilities

Digital Reality for Drone Piloting

Michael Hartnack
Oct 08, 2019

Drone

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies have garnered the attention of nearly every commercial industry since 2009. Historically, AR and VR have seemed to exist somewhere in the space between science project and practical wearable technology, only recently have their real-world applications been brought to light.

New Technologies Face New Barriers

Utilities specifically have viewed AR and VR as technologies with the potential to bring sky high benefits with seemingly equally sky high challenges. This mindset spans the spectrum of digital reality technologies, which are illustrated in in the graphic below. Navigant Research’s Enhancing Utility Operations with Virtual and Augmented Realities report provides additional information on each technology and a detailed discussion of their applications, benefits, and challenges.

Digital Experience Spectrum

Digital Experience Spectrum

(Source: Navigant Research, Burns & McDonnell)

AR and VR Technologies for Drone Piloting

Remote drone piloting is one of the more interesting applications for the use of AR and VR technologies for utilities. Using either an AR device or a VR headset, a drone pilot can use digital realities to remotely pilot a drone over utility power lines for inspection and digital mapping purposes. Compared to traditional piloting, the use of AR or VR improves flying efficiency and cuts overall project costs by providing the pilot with greater control and the ability to see exactly what the drone’s cameras see.

In addition to drone inspection flights, AR can be used by utilities to train their drone pilots while minimizing risk. German startup DronOSS uses augmented reality to simulate structures and obstacles for drone pilot training. For example, a pilot trainee can use a screen mounted on the drone control unit to guide a real drone around a virtual wind turbine for inspection. In reality, the drone is flying around in empty space, but a series of sensors and cameras allow the pilot to simulate the maneuvers that would be required in a real life drone inspection flight. This minimizes the risk of crashing the drone, increasing safety and cost risks for both the pilot, the drone, and the asset.

A Simulated Wind Turbine for AR Drone Pilot Training

Simulated Wind Turbine for AR

(Source: Next Reality)

The benefits of using AR and VR for drone piloting and training will escalate further as beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) restrictions on drones are eased in the US and much of Europe. In late 2018, Xcel Energy became the first utility to launch a BVLOS drone inspection flight, and Navigant Research expects that many regulations will be eased in the US over the next several years. Many European countries have few to no restrictions on BVLOS operation, and the same goes for much of Asia, outside of the most populous regions.

The updating and relaxing of these BVLOS regulations will eventually allow a pilot sitting in a control center to equip AR and VR device and remotely launch and control the drone. This saves utility significantly on the cost of field crew labor and transportation costs. Additionally, remotely piloting drones through AR will allow utilities to inspect areas of their transmission and distribution system that are inaccessible by trucks to provide line of sight to drones. This includes areas recently damaged by storms, which may still have unsafe conditions for crewmen to assess onsite, and infrastructure in mountainous or other geographically challenging areas.

The value of collected data is growing, and utilities are increasingly relying on analytics to maintain their grid and operating metrics. AR and VR drone piloting will help utilities gain greater visibility into their networks which will drive resiliency, reliability, and stability.