For a long time, gaps in drone regulation had stonewalled the ability of utilities to use drones for certain applications. All this changed in 2016 when the Federal Aviation Administration issued new regulations paving the way for the use of drones in utilities.
While the new rules are only applicable for drones that weigh less than 55 pounds, the FAA gives the option for people/firms to apply for a waiver to this limitation as long as they can operate the drone safely and under the terms of the exception. It is this option that provides utilities with endless possibilities of incorporating unmanned aerial systems (UAS).
Utility firms often perform activities such as inspection and maintenance of lines and damage assessment among other activities.
Most of these activities are traditionally performed using helicopters, planes or sometimes even individual professionals. Sometimes, they may involve the exposure of utility employees to dangerous situations. Given these factors, inspections are often expensive and time-consuming.
Benefits Of Using Drones
Utility companies that adopt the use of drones in their operations stand to benefit in numerous ways.
- The primary difference between drones and planes/helicopters is that drones operate remotely. This in itself goes a long way in reducing the eliminating some of the safety risks normally associated with utility inspections as well as maintenance activities.
For example, utilities can use drones to take visual shots of maintenance sites and there prepare/plan appropriately for the specific conditions of the site.
- Drones will allow utilities to reduce the time taken to perform activities such as inspection. Subsequently, this allows for quicker responses to any issues arising.
- Drones often use high-resolution cameras and other sensory equipment to collect a wide variety of data including 3D maps of inspection sites. Furthermore, data gathered is more accurate and more reliable.
- All these benefits culminate in cost reduction advantages for the firm.
Some Application of Drones in the Utility Industry
i. Solar Energy
For solar panels to work effectively, it is essential to carry out routine inspections and maintenance. However, this is often strenuous and expensive because solar farms normally stretch over large areas of land. Drones allow operators to survey solar panels and provide latest images (including videos). This facilitates the detection of any damage o the solar panel.
ii. Oil And Gas
Oil and gas rank top among the most critical utilities for the United States. The oil and gas industry is already using drones for a wide range of applications including;
- The creation of georeferenced ortho mosaics of gas plants and produce high-resolution maps.
- Assessment of safety requirements
- Creation of 3D models
- Tracking of resources
- Coordination of site activities
- Search and identification of oil and gas leaks using thermal cameras.
iii. Electricity Sector
Traditionally power utility companies would either have to send individual climbers up the posts to access and assess power lines. In other cases, they use helicopters which are expensive, risky and also intrusive on other publics. Drones provide a safer, less intrusive and more environmentally friendly way of inspecting power lines.