Drones in utilities
The Electric Power Research Institute has been looking into the prospects of using drones in power line management.
In October 2015, the research institute held a three-day workshop with different utility companies to discuss the options available.
By using simple drones, nothing more than a small helicopter model with a few sensors and a camera, they were able to carry out a safe, clear inspection of lines at a hydroelectric plant in the Catskill Mountains. This type of drone work is also used in farming and land surveying to gather aerial data.
This sounds great for technological progress in the industry but while there are potential benefits, there are also obstacles.
There are clear advantages to using drones in this line of work
The benefits of using drones in this capacity are clear – these simple machines can get to hard-to-reach lines in a quick, efficient manner and are likely to save companies a lot of time and effort.
Companies understand that they can gain a lot more information about their systems and save money in the process.
It is estimated that it costs around $10,000 to send a man up a wind turbine to monitor the performance but only $300 to use a drone.
The most important benefit with this potential use of drones in power line inspection is safety. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 17 fatal work-related injuries among utility workers in 2014.
If companies can avoid sending men to personally, physically climb these towers and inspect faulty connections, they could not only save time and effort but also some lives.
These remote control drones can be launched from the ground and controlled from a safe distance, if there is a problem or an electrical charge, it is the drone that gets hit, not the operator.
The problem with this approach, however, comes in the word ‘potential’
Companies and utility providers talk about the potential of this technology because there are still too many regulations in place that stop them from adopting drones in widespread practice.
To start with, there is the FAA regulation on drones. The organization treats them as aircraft and this means strict guidelines on who can operate them:
- Drone operators must have a pilot’s license
- The weight of the drone cannot exceed 55 pounds
- Flights cannot take place above 200 feet from the ground
- Drones must be constantly in the operator’s line of sight.
In 2015, seven utility companies received permission to test drones, with the hopes that this will progress in 2016. The institute is keen to see drones implemented as a standard tool in these inspections, as are many of those that attended the workshop.
The research and technology director for the New York Power Authority is quoted as saying that he hoped to be using drones as early as spring 2016.
It will be slow progress, but there are high hopes that the FAA will make it easier for operators to use these UAVs and decrease the restrictions.
As regulations ease and more employees gain the appropriate certification, it is more likely that these line-managing drones will become a crucial tool in many utility companies across America.