The Future of Drone Technology in the Electric Power Industry

Throughout the USA, the Electrical Sector’s interest in drone technology is increasing at a fast pace. Utilities haven’t wasted any time jumping on board because the Federal Aviation Administration approved drones for industrial use in 2015. As drones proceed to be included in utilities’ transmission and distribution operations, signs point to a bright future for the technology in the electrical power market.

Benefits Drones Supply Electric Utilities

The task of inspecting and maintaining high voltage transmission and distribution lines can be difficult, costly, and dangerous. Consequently, utilities are increasingly looking toward drones as a safe and effective tool to aid them in their T&D operations.

Typically, US utilities collectively spend between $6 billion to $8 Billion annually to inspect and preserve their power lines using helicopters and ground crews. Drones mostly cut the prices of power line inspections for utilities. They also improve security, enhance reliability, and decrease reaction time across the transmission and distribution systems.

Accessing remote regions of high voltage power lines, either when administering regular inspections or surveying destruction after storms, presents difficult and hazardous obstacles. With drones, these issues could all but be eliminated. Tracking substations, switchyards, and transmission lines with drones offer a good option for utilities to enhance safety and minimize work. Drones also give utilities the ability to rapidly and efficiently identify threats to the grid.

With these advantages, it’s easy to understand the growing fascination with drones. A small number of utilities, such as Xcel Energy, National Grid, San Diego Gas & Electric, Southern Company, and Duke Energy, have either started or are analyzing the use of drones in their processes. Drones are showing to provide excellent value to utilities and can transform how they work.

Benefits Drones Provide Engineering, Procurement, And Construction (EPC) Firms

Not only do drones serve as a valuable tool for utilities, but they also Supply EPC companies with the capability to capture data for job functions. Drones can capture more than just a picture. By collecting data that give operational information and construction information, drones can also help engineers design the electric infrastructure. By way of instance, Light Detection and Ranging, known as LIDAR, is a remote sensing technology that measures distance by using a laser. The data are created as 3D data that’s then able to be used by many design applications. Drones may also gather other helpful data by infrared sensors, ultraviolet cameras, and radio frequency detectors.

When it is about monitoring projects with various solar panels, miles of transmission lines, drones allow for fast and precise informational feedback to successfully design and complete a high voltage EPC project.

AI is Redefining Utility Inspections

Artificial intelligence (AI) possesses a wide range of possible applications, across virtually every industry imaginable — health care, retail, automotive, even fast food. But it’s the utility sector where AI and machine learning (ML) are starting to show some of the most impactful results in several enterprise areas.

Electricity companies are increasingly leaning on AI to enhance their Electricity delivery an– in areas like the Amazon and California — avoid possible wildfires through drone control software and vegetation management. In a post-COVID world where a reduced onsite workforce is fast becoming the standard, AI is enhancing human jobs.

From data collection and analysis to actionable insights presentation, AI and ML algorithms are swiftly redefining how utility businesses manage their electrical infrastructure.

Consolidating And Classifying Data

Utility companies manage enormous infrastructure networks, comprising conductors, poles, substations. Transmission and distribution lines that contain these significant components span thousands of miles. Vegetation management around this crucial infrastructure also has to be monitored, as it poses a threat of fire or outage.

Taking a comprehensive snapshot of those assets means using a variety of different sensors for powerline inspections. These sensors consist of light detection and ranging (LiDAR), hyperspectral, color (RGB), and thermal vision.

This enables the drone mapping software to catch everything — from vegetation proximity to infrastructure resources to individual elements (such as transformers on insulators) and their functional integrity to hot spots showing potential fire risks.

That’s a good deal of information to capture, process, and catalog. And there are many individual components within that information — even in only one picture — to show and classify, let alone do this correctly. Categorizing billions of data points across all of those sensors is an impossibly time-consuming job to do manually.

AI and ML tools can do that same job — scanning tens of thousands of images gathered across thousands of miles of utility infrastructure — in moments. LiDAR point cloud segmentation can find conductors (quite a hard component-type to section ) with over 95 percent accuracy for each stage. In contrast, hyperspectral image segmentation can identify vegetation species with an accuracy of around 99%.

Above that, when used with drone sensors, these algorithms can also enhance the upfront data acquisition. AI and ML devices help to correct the sensor systems placement in real-time. If a signal gets failed or the drone veers slightly from its inspection flight route, an EDGE AI algorithm running on the pilot hardware or professional drone can help the drone readjust its attention with object detection or prevent collision through onboard collision prevention.

By helping to adjust the sensors’ bearings while in flight, AI not just ensures more precise data collection but ensures that the flight does not have to be replicated or prematurely ended due to incorrect data collection, saving precious time and resources. ML techniques can identify any flaws in the sensors or the drone’s flight route while in the air, recalibrating as needed, and identifying human elements within the information as it comes through the sensors’ video feed.

Breaking Down Silos To Create A Holistic Information Approach

The key to all of this is removing the silos that naturally build up between different data sections. From the utility review area, asset management, plant management, different sensors, and so on create their own different, walled-off sets of information.

When information is stored siloed like this, it becomes difficult for teams to derive company-wide insights or conclusions from the collected data. And what’s right is all that info if it can not be used to test against itself and enhance other sets of information?

Good data management can’t exist in a piecemeal manner. It needs to be holistic, and AI gives the impetus to make that happen. AI provides a central resource for pooling these data sources together, making it easier for data analysis for possible problems — such as damaged parts or wildfire-prone vegetation.

When these problems are collected in one system, it becomes much easier to identify faults and solve them and do so far quicker than manually sifting through countless images of plant or sticks maps.

Regardless of all the common concerns about AI eliminating labor for human beings, at utility companies, AI enhances the function people have to play in the network and powerline review procedure. Since the AI is the instrument that carries out the data analysis, it’s not reliant on an expert human inspector’s potentially biased expertise, nor is it inclined to exhaustion and the anomalous results that can come from that rather the drone inspection software.

However, at the same time, AI can’t do everything itself. It’s a method for introducing clearer, more precise, and more actionable advice for people to then act on with their judgment.

There are plenty of easy-to-make assumptions, both good and bad, about AI. With communities are beginning to emerge from lockdown and social distancing heralding a noticeable shift in day to day life, what AI means for the utility business is less reliance on manual surveys and a much more effective and efficient tool for supplying the ideal information regarding the infrastructure of a power company– its transmission and distributions lines, its poles, and its neighboring vegetation — to the hands of its key decision-makers.

Looking Forward

With the benefits of capturing images and collecting information, Utilities and EPC companies alike expect to pursue drones’ implementation in their business operations. As drones are increasingly used, the technology is positioned to be a norm in the high voltage industry.

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