Use of Drones To Clean Power Lines

People often take our power lines for granted. They enjoy the electricity that comes through outlets and powers their homes, but no one ever thinks where it comes from. That is until something goes wrong with the line and the power supply becomes compromised, or worse, lost completely.

Energy companies employ maintenance men and expect to look after these lines and ensure that everything runs smoothly. This means clearing away rubbish and dealing with faults.

The rise of drones changed all that as operators could send these UAVs up into the skies for a better view of the area and potential problems. Now, a company in China has gone a step further.

A power company in Xiangyang has come up with an interesting new solution for clearing the rubbish and debris from its power lines. This strange solution is not what many would expect. It is fire.

The drones come with what are essentially flame throwers to shoot fire at offending items of waste. The flames burn the plastic and debris to ash or some molten debris, and there is no longer a problem.

Why is it so important for engineers to make sure that the lines are clear of rubbish?

Clean power lines are important for the maintenance and efficiency of the lines and workers need to check them regularly. A piece of trash on a line can decrease the efficiency of the line and disrupt the flow of power.

Every trash bag, balloon, a piece of fabric or those sneakers that somehow manage to get thrown up there makes a difference. They all need to go. This can be a dangerous, time-consuming profession without the right tools. This is why this Chinese company has turned to new drone tech for help. The flames may be new, but the rest of the drone technology in use is familiar across the US.

Drone Technology

Drone technology can help to make the job easier for workers.

It is easy to see the benefits of using drones to clean power lines. The last thing that companies want is to have workers manually picking out rubbish and getting close to dangerous power lines.

Drones offer that form of remote assistance that can make all the difference on the ground. Operators merely have to use the remote controls and put the drone to work from a safe position on the ground. All the risk and danger falls upon the drone itself.

Many companies in different industries have seen the benefit of these drones at work. They are not simply limited to this kind of maintenance work. Drones can survey wide areas and provide a new perspective on a work site in no time at all. They save time, labor and costs. This is true in construction, mining, infrastructure work and much more.

More and more applications open up as drones become more and more sophisticated. We are not talking about a toy helicopter with a simple two channel remote. These top-of-the-line UAVs have the power, stability, and complexity in their flight to handle impressive jobs.

A long battery life keeps them in the air for longer. Diverse channels allow for intricate flight and hovering. Cameras – with thermal imaging and HD video – offer images of the subject below.

So how would a flame throwing drone work?

This may sound like a science-fiction idea, but the concept is simple. All we need is a drone equipped with the right tech, battery, camera, fuel tank and flame throwing accessory on the front. This isn’t your typical DIY drone kit. Still, the right engineers can make it work.

Clean Power Lines

With this flame-throwing approach, a careful pilot can maneuver the drone carefully along the length of the lines, picking off rubbish as it goes. The word careful is important here because there are many elements to consider.

Users must control the drone in a steady flight with no risk of damage to property or people. The operators must use the tech onboard to determine the items of waste and debris that they need to clear. They then need to aim and fire the flamethrower with accuracy.

Surely these reports of flame-throwing Chinese drones aren’t true?

This immediately sounds like an April Fool-style news story. The idea is just too extreme. There are photos and clips of video footage from the tests that show that this is happening. It is impressive work; there is not just the skill of the flight but the accuracy of the aim in targeting the waste. It is a pretty scary sight for anyone that doesn’t immediately know what is going on.

There is already mistrust of drones due to fears of injury and privacy issues. Then there are those worried about AI in current tech and its true potential. When we add a flame-thrower to the front, this concern can only increase. That is why it is important that trained professionals operate these machines. Ones that know how to use the drone and fire in a safe, controlled manner.

(Source: FTC U)

Are flame-throwing drones the best option here for cleaning power lines?

This approach can seem a little extreme to onlookers. There should be some midway point in the considerations here between manual work and flame-throwing drone.

Some would question the potential of an option that could pick up the waste and bring it to a safe point on the ground for disposal. This would be time-consuming.

Flight times are already limited, and operators want to make sure they get the most efficient flight possible. There is no point in bringing the drone back down unless it has to, say for a dead battery.

There are also concerns over the environmental implications of this approach. In an ideal world, companies would gather the waste – especially all the plastic – and recycle rather than incinerate. Incineration creates fumes and smoke that are bad for the environment.

Then there is all of the fuel that the drones use for the burning process. Again, it all come down to issues of practicality. This is the easiest, most effective approach right now. The problem is that it is still so extreme for many people.

Flame Throwing Drones

Is there no middle-ground option that is more appealing for cleaning power lines?

There is a link in the middle that may have passed some people by, and it originated in Australia. Here they use helicopters in Queensland to spray water on insulators on power lines to keep them clean.

The idea here is pretty similar to that of the flame-throwing drone. Send one person out with the right equipment, a good aim and steady flight for a better result.

The drone idea is the next step, replacing the manned helicopter with a UAV and decreasing the costs and time spent. The only massive leap is the switch from water to fire.

Would water be preferable in these power line cleaning drones? Onlookers and environmentalists may think so. Water is less scary and less likely to cause damage, injury, and widespread chaos. A high powered jet might dislodge the debris. However, this is not guaranteed, and there is also the issue of collecting and dealing with the waste when removed.

Safety is an understandable concern here, whichever method companies choose.

The use of drones requires a license and plenty of safety precautions at the best of time. Trained professionals must operate them away from property and people to avoid damage or injury.

Operators also need to keep them in their eye line at all times. This is vital with these high tech pieces of equipment for the safety of all involved, and to protect the drone. This issue only intensifies when you put a flame thrower on the front. The drone is then a potentially deadly weapon that requires strict control. It cannot go near people or property through fears of fire risk. There are also issues over flying in windy conditions if the wind catches the drone or flames and sends them the wrong way.

Other viewers are simply concerned by the fact that the operator had little protection other than a hard hat and basic uniform.

We have to assume that if this tech were to come to America, there would be stricter guidelines on the operation, safety wear, and other factors. These rules could limit the ability to use a flame-throwing drone in certain conditions and areas. Eventually, the venture just wouldn’t be viable.

This raises some important questions about the potential of flame-throwing cleaning drone in the US.

As things stand, this is more of a trailing process than something that is being rolled out nationwide. The images shared recently show test runs limited to Xiangyang. However, we have to question the potential of this option for a wider roll out.

Flame Throwing

What is the best way for American power line maintenance teams to clean the lines? Drones are already in greater use in the US in these capacities as the FAA relaxes rules on operation in these industrial capacities.

Drones can check power lines for problems and damage. The next logical step here is to equip the drones with a way of removing the waste it finds.

Fire may not be the answer here right now, but it is an interesting option for companies to consider. It all depends on cost, accessibility of equipment and the confidence of drone operators to fire off a flame-thrower in steady flight.

Cost is important here and could be what makes or breaks this idea in the US. First of all, there is the cost of the drone itself. Companies will require a high-end model with all the right tech to handle the flight and accuracy.

A specialist flame-throwing option would be pretty expensive, even to just hire for a day. Then there is the cost of the fuel and pilot vs. the cost of the workforce with manual labor and waste removal efforts. Is this approach going to be as profitable as companies hope? They certainly cannot overlook the costs of decreased efficiency in the lines.

The likelihood of American drone operators cleaning power lines with fire is slim. However, it is fun to speculate on the potential application of this tech in other fields.

What use could we have for a flame-throwing drone? One that springs to mind for many is military applications. No doubt officials are viewing this tech as a potential weapon rather than a trash-burning aid.

Remote military operations are an important part of modern warfare. Therefore, many will find interest in the ability to fly with weaponry. Fire cleanses the power lines but, more accurately, fire burns anything in its path. Drones could fly into enemy territory and burn good, weapons and other resources.

Developments of those water-spraying drones are probably more likely within an American context. In this most simple form, these drones contain an additional propulsion system and a tank for the fluid. It doesn’t matter what is on board as long as the drone has the right battery life, stable flight and a camera for navigation.

These jets of water clearly work for cleaning operations, either with energy companies or other applications. Some also suggest that there are other possibilities such as irrigation during drought or firefighting. These water-throwing drones could be a force for good in difficult fires.

There is a lot of speculation and intrigue based on a small number of photos and videos.

There is no doubt that the images captured by these Xiangyang operators have created a buzz. Some are a little negative about the situation, with concerns over the environmental credentials and true safety of the process.

Others see past this to the efficient job and potential for the future. The flame-throwing drone is extreme, and may not occur outside of China for a while. However, there is no doubt that American developers and engineers are watching with keen interest. There are countless miles of power lines to clean in the US and even if the fire isn’t the answer right now, drones are.

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