Util­i­ties see po­ten­tial in drones to in­spect lines, tow­ers

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

BLEN­HEIM: US util­i­ties see great po­ten­tial in the use of re­mote-con­trolled drones to do the of­ten­dan­ger­ous work of in­spect­ing power lines and trans­mis­sion tow­ers but strict reg­u­la­tions have so far slowed adop­tion of the tech­nol­ogy.

The re­mote-con­trolled de­vices make the work of line­men safer, more ef­fi­cient and less ex­pen­sive, ac­cord­ing to the Elec­tric Power Re­search In­sti­tute, which last month put on a three-day work­shop to help nearly a dozen util­i­ties choose the best ma­chines for the job. Minia­ture he­li­copter-like drones, some equipped with cam­eras and other sen­sors, con­ducted demonstration in­spec­tions of trans­mis­sion lines at a hy­dro­elec­tric plant in the Catskill Moun­tains.

“We want to start us­ing drones next spring when the in­spec­tion sea­son be­gins,” said Alan Et­tlinger, re­search and tech­nol­ogy di­rec­tor for the New York Power Author­ity, who at­tended the work­shop.

Util­i­ties spend mil­lions of dol­lars in­spect­ing power lines, which are of­ten in hard-to-reach places. The in­dus­try has been in­ter­ested in the po­ten­tial use of drones for years, but has been slower than Euro­pean com­pa­nies to adopt the tech­nol­ogy be­cause of U.S. reg­u­la­tory re­stric­tions.

While hob­by­ists can fly drones with­out cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion re­quires spe­cial cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for com­mer­cial users. There are nu­mer­ous con­di­tions and lim­i­ta­tions: The drone op­er­a­tor needs a pi­lot’s li­cense, the air­craft must weigh less than 55 pounds, flights can go no more than 200 feet above the ground, and the drone must be op­er­ated in the pi­lot’s line of sight. The FAA treats the op­er­a­tion of drones like any other air­craft for safety rea­sons and com­mer­cial op­er­a­tors face strict rules for get­ting per­mis­sion to use them, ac­cord­ing to the agency.

Un­manned aerial ve­hi­cles

Seven US util­i­ties have been granted FAA ap­proval for test­ing drone tech­nol­ogy in 2015. Con­sumers En­ergy in Michi­gan con­ducted a se­ries of tests over the sum­mer us­ing its own eight-ro­tor drone and un­manned aerial ve­hi­cles op­er­ated by out­side ven­dors to in­spect wind tur­bines, util­ity poles and trans­form­ers. The util­ity is part of a UAV task force un­der the Edi­son Elec­tric In­sti­tute, the as­so­ci­a­tion rep­re­sent­ing US in­vestor-owned elec­tric com­pa­nies. “When you look at the amount of in­for­ma­tion we can gain to make ac­cu­rate de­ci­sions about our sys­tems, and look at the cost and time sav­ings, this is a huge op­por­tu­nity for us,” said An­drew Bor­dine, a Con­sumers En­ergy ex­ec­u­tive.

The UAV sys­tem Con­sumers En­ergy uses starts at about $10,000, Bor­dine said. Sen­sor at­tach­ments range from a few thou­sand dol­lars to up­ward of $100,000, he said. But the cost sav­ings are far greater than the in­vest­ment.

Con­sumers En­ergy spends sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars a year to send peo­ple out in the field to do map­ping and mea­sur­ing of its elec­tri­cal sys­tem, Bor­dine said. A UAV equipped with “li­dar,” the sen­sor tech­nol­ogy used to de­velop driver­less cars, can col­lect the same data and more at a small frac­tion of the cost and time.

“With wind tur­bines, you’ll have a couple of guys hang­ing off the blades by a rope a couple hun­dred feet in the air to do in­spec­tions vis­ually, at a cost up­wards of $10,000 per site,” Bor­dine said. “We can get the same re­sults with a UAV for $300, with­out putting work­ers in dan­ger.”

The Bureau of La­bor Sta­tis­tics re­ports 17 fa­tal work in­juries among util­ity work­ers in 2014, but doesn’t spec­ify the cause. Other in­dus­tries, in­clud­ing oil and gas drillers, pipe­line op­er­a­tors, con­struc­tion com­pa­nies, and agri­cul­ture are also in­ves­ti­gat­ing the use of drones to make in­spec­tion and map­ping tasks faster, more ac­cu­rate, safer and less costly. “The main ad­van­tage we pro­vide in small un­manned as­sets is safety,” said Mark Sick­ling, chief pi­lot for Cy­ber­hawk, a drone com­pany based in the United King­dom that does aerial in­spec­tions for util­i­ties and the oil and gas in­dus­try. At the work­shop, Sick­ling demon­strated Cy­ber­hawk’s most pop­u­lar drone, the eight-ro­tor G4 Ea­gle, which boasts “un­prece­dented flight and im­age sta­bil­ity.”

The work done by Con­sumers En­ergy over the sum­mer could also be done with a drone fly­ing with­out direct hu­man con­trol us­ing in­struc­tions en­tered into an on­board flight com­puter if the FAA al­lowed it, Bor­dine said.

“The FAA is look­ing at how to re­vamp its re­quire­ments to make the tech­nol­ogy more ac­ces­si­ble to more com­pa­nies,” Bor­dine said. “A goal for me would be to get FAA ap­proval to work with a re­mote ap­pli­ca­tion and an au­ton­o­mous flight.” — AP

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