Drones Dramatically Improve Utility Infrastructure Operations and Maintenance
Municipal and cooperative utilities run the world’s largest, most complex, vital networks. Every minute of every day, families, businesses, communities, and nations rely on these utilities and their ability to deliver the power and the electricity, that supports our livelihoods, fuels our economy, heats our homes, and enables most of our modern entertainment. Historically, managing these networks has been a time consuming, inefficient, expensive process. Recent technical advances in unmanned data capture and massively scalable data analytics now offer these critical utilities the game changing ability to streamline operations, lower costs, improve efficiency, and advance grid stability and improve grid stability. A key bonus today is that utilities do not have to pull all of these technology pieces together themselves. With UAV Recon, safe UAV / drone data capture and cloud-based analytics are now available as turnkey aerial inspection as a service (IaaS) for electrical transmission and distribution infrastructure.
Million of Miles of Line
Electric utilities operate massive networks that rely on complex infrastructure to create and deliver electricity to hundreds of millions of people. In the US alone, utilities manage 600,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 5.5 million miles of distribution lines.
This infrastructure includes complex systems, high value components and miles and miles of line. Many of these electrical power lines run through harsh environments and are subject to a wide array of possible interference. Consequently, utilities increasingly want more timely visibility into their infrastructure and equipment. In addition, maintenance must be carried out regularly to avoid damage that could lead to power outages. State and Federal regulators usually demand a visual inspection of each power line every year or two and detailed observations every three to five years.
Walk, Drive, or Fly?
Through the years, utilities have three primary methods for getting to electrical lines: walking, driving, and flying. Each option presents its own challenges.
Walking is an option most regularly used in urban areas. For rural power lines in remote areas, (such as those managed by most energy cooperatives), rough terrain and long distances take up too much time for walking to be efficient or practical.
Many municipal utilities have a workforce of technicians whose job it is to inspect and maintain infrastructure. They use specially equipped trucks and equipment to gather information needed to understand what is happening in each location. But utility infrastructure and equipment are subject to extreme wear and tear. Wind, rain, ice, snow, and temperature changes eventually cause even the strongest equipment to fail. As a result of these conditions, lines, structures, and components are always at risk of malfunction. Especially during periods of extreme weather, accessibility issues can block linemen and their bucket trucks from getting to inspection points.
Natural disasters like hurricanes, wildfires, tornados, floods, and earthquakes can, wreak havoc with transmission equipment. In these cases, utilities often need to send crews into dangerous surroundings and even otherwise inaccessible areas, because access roads are no longer passable. Oftentimes these first responders have to open roads and dig themselves out before they can bring the needed equipment in.
In the face of these challenges, safety always looms as a potential problem. Just reaching these locations is difficult. The terrain can be unforgiving even in mild weather. Having workers climb poles and manipulate complex, often heavy equipment is a cumbersome process that requires expensive equipment, critical knowledge, brute strength, money, and patience.
Flying is one more option. Many utilities rely on helicopters to carry linemen and inspectors to transmission and distribution equipment.
Helicopters are really convenient, but they are expensive, hazardous, noisy, and scare livestock. Utilities have to coordinate with local governments and notify them when helicopters will be working in the area. The helicopter approach also creates other environmental issues. Choppers run on kerosene and many utility companies are aggressively trying to reduce their carbon footprint to meet critical emissions standards. Landing, flying, and takeoff can also damage local vegetation in sensitive habitats.
But when it comes to helicopters, cost is king. The most efficient large utility companies like Xcel Energy and Southern California Edison budget $1,600-$2,000 per mile for helicopter-based visual inspections. With thousands of miles of line and structures to capture, it’s easy to understand how helicopter inspections can rack-up bills around $100,000 per day. These specialized aircraft cost millions of dollars. Some utilities do buy them and pay to house and maintain the aircraft.
Safety is another critically important consideration around helicopters. With proper training, maintenance, and favorable flight conditions, helicopters are usually safe, but they are still twice as likely to result in a fatal accident as compared to multi-engine aircraft. Add-in the fact that helicopters used in the inspection of electrical infrastructure are often flying in high-risk scenarios, and that risk increases even more. In several well known cases, linemen and/or pilots have been killed while conducting manned aerial inspection.
In sum, utility districts, regional electrification authorities (REAs), and co-ops are responsible for thousands of miles of lines that deliver energy to customers. Maintaining these connections is expensive, hazardous, inefficient, and time-consuming. But customers and stakeholders demand near-perfect delivery of electricity, so even the most challenging network support services are rarely negotiable.
Drones: the Better Option
Fortunately, new technology provides energy companies with a better option: drones. Also known as UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) these new technologies are faster, safer, and more efficient. Their capabilities are rapidly growing, and both potential uses and economic benefits are expanding dramatically.
Drones take advantage of recent technology advances in areas like robotics, edge computing, artificial intelligence, data storage, digital imaging, and advanced navigation. Today’s computing power also means that even a novice can guide simple drones through simple flight actions.
Today drones / UAVs are increasingly used for infrastructure equipment inspections. The goal is to “harden” the electrical grid and improve resiliency by identifying problems proactively, minimizing system down time, and even avoiding power outages completely. These unmanned aircraft evaluate power line equipment and identify defects such as missing components, broken parts, corrosion, pole splitting, burn marks, heat signatures, and encroachment of vegetation. The potential of these modular and battery-operated systems is only limited by executives’ imagination.
Utilities generate thousands of inspection images. These large numbers often bog down workflows. Because time is of the essence, Operations Managers and Line Supervisors do not want to wait days or even weeks for their images to be captured, processed, analyzed, and reported. They need inspection data to be available ASAP. With the data management solutions like VOLT Software (UAV Recon is an officially licensed VOLT inspection company), this information can be organized and dispatched before the drone and its crew get home.
Another requirement is that the reporting information be easy to manipulate and analyze. Recent technical advances simplify both. Today data entry and analysis can be handled by the utility or completely outsourced as turnkey “Inspection as a Service”. The most compelling of these systems can work on popular consumer cellular networks, so there are no delays moving data between multiple locations. With Inspection as a Service, linemen and their supervisors can immediately see and understand: jobs to be done, tasks ranked by criticality, parts needed, man hours to schedule, and budgets required. Each image is time stamped, geolocated / GIS tagged, clearly labeled, and then encrypted for easy access and security. A secure connection to the nearest network hotspot ensures that the information is uploaded quickly and securely. As a result, UAV Recon delivers turnkey Inspection as a Service in less than 1/10th of the time that it would take traditional linemen working in the field.
Drones’ Numerous Benefits
1. Improve Emergency Responses
“Having the drone fly our islands saved us a full day of assessing damage” - Mark Townsend, Clay Electric division manager of T&D construction
In the USA, energy companies often find themselves at the whim of Mother Nature. Seasonal problems as well as natural disasters often disrupt power lines and shut off service, sometimes to millions of customers. The country has several areas with unpredictable seasonal weather and rough terrain.
Thunderstorms down trees, distribution poles, and take networks off-line nationwide.
High winds drive line vibrations that create system stress fatigue in the Great Plains.
Ice accumulation takes power grids offline in the east and Midwest.
Wildfires race through service areas, disrupting electrical lines in the West.
Trees grow into hazardous areas creating maintenance challenges in the Rockies.
Tropical storms and salt corrosion regularly take down energy distribution networks along the Gulf Coast.
2. Improve Inspection Safety
“And, of course, anything that keeps someone from climbing a pole and being exposed to that inherent danger, you cannot quantify.” - Stanley McHann, NRECA’s senior research engineer.
Maintaining utility infrastructure is a risky job. Line workers have a fatality rate twice as high as that of police officers and firemen. The near constant exposure to critical injury risks consistently places line work in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ top ten most dangerous jobs list. As one would expect, managing these risks can delay the data gathering phase of infrastructure inspection. Similarly, already high employee insurance premiums rise even higher when utilities show patterns of mishaps among field workers and technicians.
Drones make this data gathering safer. UAVs avoid many of the problems encountered on the ground when individual inspectors and linemen need to move from place to place. Since drones are unmanned, no one needs to be inside an aircraft flying at low altitudes parallel to transmission lines. Work teams don’t have to truck through remote areas or climb poles during inclement weather for inspection; the drone does the physical work for them.
3. Richer and More Effective Imaging
“From the multispectral sensors, we are able to derive the normalized difference vegetation index, and that is giving us an indication of vegetation health, which allows us to prioritize our right-of-way work.” - Comfort Manyame, Mid-South Synergy.
UAV Recon leverages data analytics from VOLT Software to deliver turnkey Inspection as a Service that is faster and more efficient than traditional inspection techniques. UAV Recon aircraft are equipped with high resolution, high performance cameras and VOLT data management and analytics software detects, organizes, and annotates any
Aerial thermal imaging is also quite helpful in this area because it enables rapid visual understanding of equipment operating characteristics that are not visible to the eye alone. Traditional thermal measurements are often taken from ground level in and around substations. This is better than nothing, but the process is a lot safer when linemen can stay away from potentially dangerous areas. These thermography systems rely on software that measures and illustrates temperature gradients via color coding. The coldest elements are typically shown in blue and the hottest elements in orange and white. Sky and ambient temperatures are often cooler than the hardware in electrical networks and substations, so infrastructure that is not performing as it should will often present with an incorrect color coding in thermographic data sets. UAVs and drones make data capture easier, ensure worker safety, and can deliver more nuanced temperature scaling than capturing the same thermal imaging data on the ground.
4. More Efficient Workflow
Comparing capture & analytics time for 1,000 H-frame 69 KV poles using different inspection methods
“We’re achieving a quantum leap forward in our processes and procedures that translate into improved key performance metrics for our membership, such as reliability and controllable cost” - Eric Bitzko, Pedernales Electric Cooperative
With drones, utilities avoid the slowdowns seen with other data collection methods. Drone inspections take less time than other options, so the utility gets more work done. Using drones, inspectors and/or linemen can conduct high resolution, component-level inspection data capture at over ten-times the rate of even the fastest climbing linemen. This means that UAV Recon’s turnkey Inspection as a Service can cut the schedule for network inspection and report delivery from months to days.
Increased efficiency in inspection coverage and accuracy means detecting potential issues before they cause an outage. This process is known as predictive maintenance. Also known as condition-based maintenance, early detection and monitoring of condition of equipment will reduce the likelihood of unexpected failures.
The System Average Interruption Duration Index (SAIDI) is common measure of electrical network reliability. A lower SAIDI score means fewer service interruptions and shorter intervals without power. By moving to a drone-based inspection program, Pedernales Electric Cooperative reduced their annual average customer interruptions by almost half. This huge move means more revenue, more satisfied customers, and fewer crews dispatched into hazardous work conditions.
This efficiency improvement also becomes incredibly valuable in emergency response when the clock is ticking and time to restoration of electricity is critical.
5. Reduce Carbon Footprint
Transmission and distribution of electricity has become almost as much about taking care of the environment as it is about turning a profit. Drones are far less intrusive than helicopters and much more efficient. They are smaller and use less energy than larger aircraft. Drone use Li-ion batteries rather than aviation fuel and they are more energy efficient than traditional helicopters.
In addition, drones make much less noise than helicopters, are nimbler, and avoid struc, like power lines. A typical drone will generate approximately 50 decibels (dB) at 50 yards, in contrast to a helicopter which will easily generate over 100 dB of noise at the same distance. One byproduct of this is good public relations and building a brand that resonates with customers and stakeholders.
6. Bottom-line Savings
“After seeing firsthand what a drone could do for us, we bought our own. Now, we’ll be able to conduct closer, cheaper, and more frequent inspections. Drones will pay for themselves with the first outage you prevent by finding a problem before it fails.” - Keith Kropf, Florida Keys Electric Cooperative
The biggest benefits from UAV Recon’s turnkey inspection are realized in terms of time and money. UAV Recon can cut inspection and reporting time by 10x and reduce inspection operating costs by over 50%!
7. Top-line Benefit
Traditional inspection methods require lines over 34.5 KV to be de-energized. Depending on the time and duration of offline interval, revenue losses can add up quickly. With UAV / drone inspection, most electrical lines do not have be de-energized for inspection. This means that customers and stakeholders do not have to experience the inconvenience of an outage. It also means that electric utility districts and co-ops working with already tight budgets, do not suffer the pain of lost revenue or unhappy customers.
Drones in Action
Stanley McHann, NRECA’s senior research engineer estimates that at least 400 co-ops own or deploy drones
The notion of drones helping energy companies may seem like science fiction, but many utilities have already deployed the technology.
Duke Energy uses drones to conduct infrared equipment inspections, survey storm damage, and examine tall structures.
Cherryland Electric Cooperative uses drones to conduct asset inventory with high-resolution zoom cameras, and preventative maintenance with thermal imaging.
MidSouth Electric Cooperative uses drones for precision vegetation management, pole inspection and fiber-to-the-home installation.
Florida Keys Electric Cooperative uses drones for storm responses.
When storms hit Kearney, Nebraska, the local utility deployed UAV Recon to assess the damage.
What is Missing?
The use cases for UAVs are growing, but many utilities struggle to take advantage of the new technology. Why? Collecting the needed technology pieces is fairly straightforward. Any company can buy a drone, and simple play flying is something that even a child can do. But energy companies are not searching for an entertaining diversion. They want to improve their business operations and need a partner who understands technology, safety, quality, efficienty, and most importantly: electrical infrastructure.
UAV Recon’s business is electrical infrastructure and only electrical infrastructure. Our operations team is led by a decorated US Air Force veteran and our drone pilots are under the supervision of a Master Pilot. Our drone pilots are highly trained, licensed to fly commercial unmanned aerials systems under US FAA Part 107 regulations, and are fully insured.
Municipal utility districts and electric co-ops need a partner that understands the electric utility business. The ideal partner is an infrastructure inspection company like UAV Recon that focuses on electrical transmission and distribution and has a record for diligence and safety while flying and operating advanced inspection sensors in challenging environments.
UAV Recon’s list of certified services is expansive including: Substations, Transmission Structures, Distribution Poles, Damage Assessment, Geolocation, GIS Integrations, Criticality Ranking, Component Detail, Budgeting, Reporting, and Incident Monitoring.
UAV Recon has a fleet of the most advanced drones and imaging equipment. These systems are all registered and well maintained.
The Value of Experienced Pilots
“A lineman who is a pilot is ideal because they have the experience and know what to look for when assessing the system” - Frank Siepker, Cherryland Electric Cooperative
A child can fly a drone, but energy companies need someone who captures actionable data efficiently, safely, and quickly. Similarly, the highest value drone / UAV / UAS pilots capturing electrical infrastructure data understand what to look for in the images that they are capturing. Potential shortcomings arise on many fronts. Drones must avoid obstructions, like vertical structures, power lines, and natural vegetation. The pilots need to counteract visual problems, such as too much or too little sunlight. They must capture accurate pictures and circumvent issues, like parallax where the reading of an object differs when viewed from various positions. In essence, utilities need not only a drone and software, but also a team of skilled pilots who not only fly, but are good photographers, solid sensor operators, and knowledgeable engineers.
At UAV Recon, our experience is our differentiator. REAs, utilities, and co-ops should only use drone pilots with thousands of record flight hours, inspectors with years of experience, and operators with strong safety records and well documented practices. In essence, you need the UAV / drone equivalent of journeymen linemen who specialize in the inspection, maintenance, and repair of electrical systems. UAV Recon’s award winning drone pilots are not just flight operators and not just photographers; they: prepare safety audits before every job, develop detailed flight plans to manage complexity, and are responsible platform service and maintenance. When capturing electrical transmission and distribution structures, UAV Recon pilots account elevation, windspeed, obstr