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Drones Harden the Grid

New solutions cost less, work faster, and are safer than legacy inspections

A large portion of the US electrical grid is over a century old and is, in many cases, showing its age. In the last 12 months stability problems in California and Texas have underscored the need for Municipal Utility Districts and Electric Cooperatives to more thoroughly inspect, evaluate, and repair their infrastructure. However, traditional inspection processes are complex and expensive, and most consumers don’t truly appreciate grid reliability until their power goes out. As a result, utility operations teams often focus a disproportionate share of their limited manhours on new construction -instead of insuring the efficacy of existing infrastructure.

Most utility customers do not fully appreciate the fact that our nation’s electrical grid is constantly under attack. Domestic hackers and foreign threats are very real, but the most common attacks are not premeditated cyber threats, but rather the natural cycle of Mother Nature. In the forms of wind, precipitation, temperature change, oxidation, and wildlife (including target practice by locals), our electrical grid’s primary threats boil down to weather and the environment. Outages are also more common than most people expect or understand. In fact, according to the US Energy Information Agency, the average US consumer experiences two to five hours without electrical service each year.

Drone-based inspections offer a simple and more cost-effective way to understand the current condition of critical transmission and distribution infrastructure and to ensure that our electrical assets are stable and working well.

Downtime’s Major Impact

Major outages can last a long time. In February, low temperatures across large areas of the USA drove up demand for power at the same time when the weather constrained supply. Rolling blackouts and negative headlines followed. For instance, on Tuesday, February 16, more than 4 million households in Texas were without power.

Not only do utilities lose money when the power goes out, but their brands also suffers. At the depth of the February outage in Texas, Oncor (one of the main power providers in Dallas) was so overwhelmed with calls that the company simply stopped picking up the phone, so that employees could focus on getting the power restored. As one can imagine, this left many customers frustrated and angry.

Drones Reduce Inspection Costs by 80%

No one debates the fact that electric utilities need to make their networks more resilient and less prone to problems. As a result, regular inspections are an important step that they take to ensure reliable service delivery. The normal operating model for inspections sees teams of technicians in trucks or in helicopters examining their power lines. They often find problems, like wood poles splitting; trees overgrowing; lines blowing loose; and circuits worn out by years of use. After identifying problems like these, inspectors in the field report their findings and the utility company enters the problem on a prioritized remediation schedule.

However, the current processes are time consuming, inefficient, dangerous, and very expensive. Drones are a much better option. With today’s leading-edge technology, remote employees control these unmanned devices as they fly from place to place and perform virtual Electrical Transmission and Distribution Infrastructure inspections. This process is quicker, safer, and as much as 80% less costly than the legacy approaches outlined above.

But inspecting power lines involves more than flying a drone and taking pictures. Pilots of these unmanned aerial vehicles need to know what they are looking for and how to operate in a hazardous environment. These operators take photographs that illustrate system conditions while simultaneously navigating around obstacles and managing turbulence. Similarly, experienced linemen need to be available to analyze and understand the same images captured by the unmanned aerial systems in the field. These line workers are highly trained specialists in the repair and maintenance of electrical systems and associated equipment. So their knowledge and availability is critical for efficiently advancing the stability of our electrical grid.

Bundled Solutions Simplify Deployment

Collections of these services are available in bundles, so Cooperatives and Municipal Utility Districts do not have to integrate all of the components themselves. For example, UAV Recon’s turnkey Inspection as a Service (IaaS) replaces traditional, manual inspections with modern, efficient solutions. We use VOLT* software to deliver the unparalleled strength of the world’s largest network of on-demand Journeymen Linemen and to ensure the cost-effective analysis of Substations and Transmission and Distribution infrastructure.

Bundled with effective software like VOLT, the efficiency of unmanned aerial systems (see UAV Recon) has become an appealing alternative to traditional electrical transmission and distribution infrastructure inspection. Turnkey Inspection as a Service delivers significant improvements in productivity and safety, and lower overhead. Today with the right partner, utility companies can both harden their grid and reduce their operating costs while strengthening the case for employee safety and improving customer satisfaction.

About the author:

Mothusi Pahl is President at UAV Recon, Chief Commercial Officer at B3 Bar Holdings, and the Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Contact UAV Recon today to schedule a free demonstration of VOLT software and to understand how turnkey inspection as a service can accelerate your electrical infrastructure maintenance program: or 210.504.8363.

*UAV Recon is a licensed user and re-seller of VOLT inspection software.

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