Utilities Middle East
UAV FOR UNINTERRUPTED POWER
Advanced drone technologies are becoming increasingly popular amongst utilities in the Middle East given their great potential to improve the quality of power grid inspections to ensure long
term reliability of power transmission
The commercial adoption of drones is growing quickly, and electric utilities are no exception. Drones provide a practical solution for the inspection of transmission and distribution (T&D) lines, as well as substations.
Drones support business efforts to avoid hazardous man- hours; reduce costs for maintenance, inspections, and repairs; and minimise downtime.
Valuable use cases have been proven with ground crews, linemen, plant managers, and engineers. Drones are helping to provide actionable inspection data on thousands of utility poles and towers across the region.
Historically, utility companies conducted analysis of their distribution assets and equipment on foot. It is not difficult to imagine how time-consuming, inefficient and potentially dangerous this approach can be. Fortunately, drone technology is delivering new efficiencies and intelligence to utility companies by augmenting the inspection workflow.
According to PwC, the global power transmission sector loses some $169bn annually because of network failures and forced
shutdowns. Drones are touted as helping cut up to 50% in inspection costs through reduced manpower expenses and higher detailed 3D modelling.
Not only does this allow utilities to prevent future problems by enabling proactive monitoring, it also reduces the risk of employee injury by assigning drones to cover high risk areas.
Most recently, Dubai’s utility, Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA), has ventured into the use of drone technology as part of its Sirb (Arabic for fleet) initiative, to boost the efficiency of its operations and maintenance services.
DEWA is piloting drones at several utilities installations around Dubai. It is using fixedwing drones, the kind that look like small airplanes, to inspect power lines across the emirate. Manned by trained staff, a small drone can cruise along a power line for about 15 miles before it returns to the person directing it. The robots capture images to spot, for instance, vegetation growing too close to the towers or tall trees that pose a threat to the lines.
“The use of drones is reshaping the way we manage projects. They are able to monitor large areas in short periods of time, allowing project managers to handle a number of projects at once,” says Rashid Bin Humaidan, executive vice president of distribution power, DEWA.
“At the same time, drones are playing a key role in supporting the expansion of projects in DEWA’s network and monitoring
38 infrastructure development, enabling timely monitoring of development in the infrastructure and a reduction in the cost of manpower.”
DEWA is now improving its use of the technology to cover various domains including topographic surveys, improved operational efficiency, thermal inspection, photovoltaic panel maintenance, and early detection, using thermal imaging, to identify overhead power lines. This limits risks, reduces costs, enables quick-response times and ensures accuracy, making it easier to make informed decisions, says Humaidan.
The drones being piloted are leveraging state-of-the-art upgradable technologies such as high-definition cameras that are equipped with night-vision, lasers and GPS sensors, and can measure pressure, height, magnetic fields, and use ultrasound scanning.
DEWA has started using the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to carry out inspections around the photovoltaic (PV) panels on its sustainable building in Al Quoz.
“A considerable amount of time and effort can be saved when UAVs are used in scanning the building’s roof, which has an approximate area of 100,000 square feet. This can be done in less than five minutes and allows Ultra HD (4K) images with a resolution of over 20 megapixels to be taken,” says Humaidan.
The sustainable building’s rooftop hosts photovoltaic panels that produce 600kW of electricity. DEWA uses drones to monitor the cleaning activities by contractors, which are essential for the panels to function properly in a desert environment.
Drones have also been deployed to inspect the largest single-rooftop arrays in the Middle East and North Africa, with 1.5-megawatt direct current (MWdc) photovoltaic generation project at DEWA’s Jebel Ali Power Station ( JAPS). DEWA installed 5,240 photovoltaic panels on the 23,000 square-meters roof of the water reservoir at M-Station, the latest and largest power production and desalination plant in the UAE.
“Since this is a pilot project that we intend to fully implement, we have to adhere to the highest safety and security standards by outfitting the drones with sensors and anti-magnetic field paint to neutralise their effects on users and on DEWA’s assets,” says Humaidan.
While a drone may be a useful appendage, it is the software that serves as its brain, opening it up for customisation based on application areas. And that is where cloud computing comes into play.
Solutions providers are now creating strategic partnerships with UAV manufacturers to apply the latest software that will eventually find relevance in the complex networks monitoring within the power and water sectors.
For instance, GE has made significant investments in Airware, a software startup in San Francisco whose solution is built on the cloud platform developed by Amazon Web Services AMZN -0.76% , and makes it possible for a drone to plot destinations, generate flight paths, and wirelessly transmit data to a remote data centre for analysis. In the case of vegetation, GE can crunch the numbers to assess the growth rates of foliage in proximity to the lines and see if and when it might risk damaging them.
Despite their relatively recent introduction to the public, drones have gained a rapidly growing fan base that is expected to only multiply in coming years. BI Intelligence predicts that the potential for the drone market will top $12 billion by 2021, as recreational drones become more popular and the regulatory environment calms down. Sales are expected to reach $15bn in 2025 as drones find more application areas.
A number of major utilities in the region have expressed interest in using drones. “With any new technology, people are very nervous in the beginning. That is fine. In the end drones are going to take off,” says Jon
Resnick, Policy Lead, DJI, a Chinese technology company that manufactures drones.
“A drone could point to areas, point to exactly where you need to go, point to what you might need to take with you to do the repair. 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, there is huge potential,” adds Resnick.
The UAV system that most Utilities around the world are using starts at about $10,000, according to resellers. Sensor attachments range from a few thousand dollars to upward of $100,000.
“But the cost savings are far greater than the investment,” says Resnick. “Utilities spend several hundred thousand dollars a year to send people out in the field to do mapping and measuring of their electrical system. 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 will have a couple of guys hanging off the blades by a rope a couple of hundred feet in the air to do inspections visually, at a cost upwards of $10,000 per site,” says Michael Costa, a renewable energy expert in the Middle East. “We can get the same results with a UAV for $300, without putting workers in danger.”
“The unmanned aerial systems can have tremendous value for utilities and other companies that must regularly inspect hard-to-reach equipment. Drones can glide over rugged terrain, where it’s hard for utility workers to get around, and send back pictures showing the condition of power lines and pipelines,” points out DEWA’s Humaidan. “They can’t inspect buried pipes, of course, but they can send back images of vegetation around pipelines that can flag problems.”
Despite the “sky’s the limit” outlook that drones bring to the industry, there have been limitations and restrictions that have prohibited utilities from using drones in their daily operations—until now. Recent changes in drone regulations, particularly the permission to perform beyond visual line of sight flights, have opened up new opportunities for the utilities sector and others, which allow drones to perform an increasing number of operations.
As the need for more long-distance transmission lines increases, the resource requirement and cost of maintaining these growing systems does as well. The ability to fly a drone beyond visual line of sight is the answer to cost effectively, consistently and efficiently inspect both transmission and distribution power lines.