“Hovering in a helicopter with people in it is one of the riskier things you can do right next to a transmission line.”
Electric utilities across the U.S. are wasting no time taking advantage of new FAA rules authorizing use of drones for commercial purposes.
“We’ve certainly heard from our members that they’re excited about this technology,” said Chris Hickling, the director of government relations for the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the trade group for investor-owned utilities in the U.S. “They see it as part of building a smarter infrastructure. We see it as an area that’s going to continue to grow.”
More than 20 utilities have already tested unmanned aerial vehicles for inspecting transmission and distribution lines for damage from storm and normal wear and tear, using temporary rules from the Federal Aviation Administration, and are now ready to demonstrate them even more.
Among the early practitioners are Duke Energy, Exelon, National Grid, Southern Company, Pacific Gas & Electric and Xcel Energy.
“You can think of a scenario where in the not-too-distant future, utilities could put some of the smaller drones on every single lineworker’s truck, so that when they go to sites, they could zip it up and down a pole to do inspections that would normally require someone climbing all the way up there,” Hickling said in
[VLOS] restrictions would crimp plans by utilities to use drones for longer-distance inspections of power lines, but the agency is providing for waivers of that and other conditions set in the new rules – and companies are already acting on
Among them is Sharper Shape, a Palo Alto, Calif., company that conducts miles-long inspections of power lines in Europe.
Sharper Shape filed waiver requests with the FAA within hours of the agency’s release of the new rules on Monday, working with EEI, Xcel Energy, Montana-Dakota Utilities, Minnkota Power Cooperative, a flight operations company called SkySkope and others.
Sharper Shape says its beyond-line-of-sight flights can travel up to 20 miles, compared to about 1,500 feet under the new FAA regulations.
“With hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission lines and millions of miles of distribution lines” in the U.S., “not to mention generation assets, there are limits to visual-line-of-sight inspections,” Hickling said.
The longer drone flights can cut costs of inspections for utilities, which typically use helicopters for such operations, and provide them with better images and data, according to Andrew Phillips, the director of transmission and substations research at the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit organization funded by the electric power industry.
“The (helicopter) fly-bys go quickly because they cost so much per hour,” Phillips said in an interview. “If you have a hovering operation (with a drone), you can get up there and take detailed pictures.”
“Our members are required to go to their public utility commissions for approval, as they do with other investments,” he said. “They have to prove that they’re getting more than one dollar in savings for every dollar they’re spending.”
Hard to imagine a more perfect example of the 4Ds (dirty, distant, dull
I’d like to share a real life, true story that suggests just how close we already are to every lineman carrying a drone. In April 2016, I was moderating a panel at the Drone Dealer Expo. A gentleman came up to me and said he wanted to tell me a story about his son Joe, who is in his early 20’s and worked as a lineman for a utility company.
Being a dronie, Joe carried his Phantom with him in his truck. One day he decided that he would send the drone up for a look before he took the time to position and set up the truck, extend the basket and so forth. He discovered that everything was fine, there was no need to set up the truck and he rolled down the road to the next pole.
It didn’t take long for the foreman to notice that Joe was inspecting a lot more poles than anyone else. Shortly thereafter, the whole story got kicked upstairs.
Obviously, at the time there were some real issues starting with the fact that there was no way that the FAA would consider this to be anything but commercial work. Joe was operating without a 333. Corporate didn’t have a 333 and on top of that, Joe wasn’t a licensed manned aircraft pilot. Adding insult to injury, Joe was also operating without any oversight from corporate.
Now obviously integrating drones into a utility company, especially one that crosses state lines, is about as complex a drone business implementation issue as one can come up with. Part 107 solves one small piece of a much larger problem. But it makes the idea more possible today than it was six months ago. Given the financial incentive that might be enough to keep working on the rest of it.
One thing is for sure. When the time comes, the utilities won’t have much trouble documenting the savings.