Since 2016, the use of drones for commercial purposes has taken the United States by storm. Drones have particularly shown great potential for
growth within the utility industry. Indeed, more utility companies are starting to use utility inspection drones to monitor and maintain their infrastructure.
The potential benefits of using drones within the utility industry are also significant. So far, experts associate drone use within the utility industry with advantages such as;
- Cost savings
- Improved staff safety
- Enhanced predictive maintenance
- Increased situational awareness of utilities
- Improved efficiency and effectiveness in operations
Experts warn that to see these benefits, utility companies must perceive drones as opportunities rather than disruptors. Nonetheless, the legal framework of drones will also determine how utilities use them.
Given the relative infancy of utility drones, constant changes and developments are inevitable. This article will highlight some of these
developments in 2018. It includes insights into the market outlook, regulatory framework and practical use of utility drones.
The market for utility drones in the United States and North America, in general, is still young. A recent Navigant Research report projects that in
2018, North American utility drone hardware sales will grow to $850,000. By 2026, the report projects that this market will surge to $25 million in value. However, this growth is dependent on continuous innovation within the industry and better drone regulations. Globally, market prospects for utility drones are even more promising. For example, a 2017 PwC report valued the global market of utility drone powered solutions at $9.46 billion.
On the same note, a 2018 Markets and Markets report values the utility drone market at $110.2 million. The same report projects that the market will
grow to over $538 million by the end of 2023. Despite the different valuations, these reports suggest one thing; the use of utility inspection drones will only increase.
Regulatory Environment of Utility Drones
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released rules regarding the commercial use of drones in 2016. A major requirement in these rules is the fact that pilots must always keep their drones in their visual line-of-sight. Critics are however of the opinion that this particular rule limits the integration of utility inspection drones.
Since then, not much has happened within the United States drone regulatory environment. For example, the relevant House and Senate committees passed long-term reauthorization bills of the FAA in 2017. Yet, Congress ended up approving only a short-term extension of the FAA until October 1, 2018. President Trump signed the extension on March 23, 2018. It is worth noting that the 2016 FAA reauthorization bill proposed restricting the use of drones over certain critical infrastructure.
Subsequently, in autumn 2017, the Department of Homeland Security began developing a selection methodology for this infrastructure.
October 2017 also saw the FAA initiate the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program. The program recognizes the importance of state, local and tribal governments in developing a regulatory framework for drones. Pursuant to this, in May 2018 the FAA named 10 entities
to partner with it in the Integration Pilot Program. These 10 partners included:
- The City of San Diego, California
- Kansas Department of Transportation
- North Caroline Department of Transportation
- North Dakota Department of Transportation
- The City of Reno, Nevada
- University of Alaska-Fairbanks
- The Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority
- Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Durant, Oklahoma
- Lee County Mosquito Control District
- Innovation and Entrepreneurship Investment Authority, Herndon, Virginia
These 10 partners will work together with the FAA for the next two and a half years. Based on the partnership, these selectees will collect data regarding;
- The night operation of drones
- Drone flights over people
- Drone flights beyond visual line-of-sight
- Drone use for delivery of packages
- Drone use in detect-and-avoid technologies
The reliability and secureness of data between the drone pilot and the drone itself. Findings from these observations will help
tackle challenges currently associated with the use of utility inspection and maintenance drones. The House finally passed a long-term
reauthorization bill of the FAA on April 27, 2018. The bill requires the FAA to develop an easier process for operators such as utilities to obtain waivers to use drones;
- Beyond the pilot’s visual line-of-sight
- Over people
- At night
Soon after the House bill, the Senate Commerce Committee also reported its version of the FAA reauthorization bill
for consideration in the Senate. The Senate started debating the bill in August. However, the pressure is on as the short-term reauthorization expires.
Applications of Drones in Utilities Industry
Over the years, experts have identified several ways in which utilities can use drones in their operations. Some of the emerging applications of
utility inspection drones are highlighted below;
1. Pre-construction and Investment Monitoring
As the population of people all across the world increases, so does the demand for utilities such as water, energy and even the internet. Ultimately, it
is necessary for utility companies to increase their investments in infrastructure and facilities.
Utility companies can use inspection drones in the pre-construction and construction phases of such investment projects. For example, utility companies may use drones to collect imagery and documentation of construction/project sites. Utilities may then use this information to predict the potential impact of investments on local communities and the natural environment. This may make it easier for utilities to identify red flags more easily.
Similarly, utilities may use drones in the construction phase to enhance the safety and health of workers. For example, drones may inspect and monitor locations to identify potential hazards for construction workers. This may help to minimize accidents and injuries on site. Even when these accidents occur, drones may help to provide valuable evidence and documentation for insurance purposes. From this, utility companies can expect significant cost savings.
2. Asset inventory and Maintenance Management
The 2017 PwC report notes that the power and utility sector loses up to $169 billion every year due to energy network failures and shutdowns. One of
the underlying reasons for this is that the assets of many utility operators are scattered. This often makes it a challenge for utility companies to monitor and maintain such assets.
Utility inspection drones can help utility companies tackle this challenge. What’s more, these drones are useful for more than just data gathering purposes. Most notably, utility companies are using them to perform tasks that are otherwise too dangerous for human workers. These include;
- Performing construction work at great heights
- Repairing power line
- Trimming vegetation that grows around power lines
- Transporting building material
- Welding and attaching different parts
In addition to these, utilities are also identifying more innovative ways to use drones in inventory and maintenance management. One of these
includes combining groundbreaking technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence with drones. According to experts, the combination of these technologies will further enhance the maintenance of utilities.
For example, combining machine learning and drones may allow greater automation of utility inspection drones. This would facilitate earlier and cheaper identification and detection of defects, malfunctions or other issues without human assistance.
3. Water Quality Monitoring
Most people associate utility inspection drones with the energy sector and others such as the internet. However, one sector that is starting to recognize
the potential benefit of drones is the water sector.
Monitoring the quality of water is often time-consuming and labor-intensive. Currently, the water sector mostly uses satellite imaging to monitor
water quality characteristics such as chlorine content and cloudiness. This makes it easier to monitor the quality of water over large bodies of water.
Unfortunately, it is not always an effective method particularly when it comes to smaller sources of water. This is because the satellite images have a lower spatial resolution making it harder to see small streams.
Drones have the ability to change all this. Fitting drones with infrared cameras will help utility companies to monitor water quality at a lower cost
and at any time. It will also generate images that have higher spatial resolutions thus enhancing the accuracy of results.
One agency that has successfully used drones to monitor water quality is Australia’s Department of Primary Industries. In 2015, the agency used drone technologies to monitor water quality of water going into the lower Darling River. The program successfully ran for a period of 6 months and monitored the quality of 35,000 megaliters of water.
4. Solar Utility Inspections
Normally, solar companies send out PV technicians to inspect equipment such as solar panels using handheld thermal cameras. Considering that some farms measure thousands of acres, this is time-consuming and expensive.
The second choice, which is to use manned aircraft for the inspections, is fast but also expensive. In some cases, it may cost even $2000 an hour. Utility inspection drones for solar farm inspections provide both speed and cost advantages. The quality of these inspections has also improved significantly due to the high definition images.
How Companies are Actually Using Utility Inspection Drones
There have also been significant developments in the adoption and use of drones among utility companies. It is necessary to give examples of these
companies and how they are using utility inspection drones-
1. Xcel Energy
Xcel Energy is a Minneapolis based energy company that has over 320, 000 miles of electricity and natural gas infrastructure. In January 2017, Xcel got into a drone partnership with the FAA through the Partnership for Safety Program. This allowed the company to use utility inspection drones on its power lines but within visual line-of-sight.
In April 2018, the Minneapolis-based energy company reached an even greater milestone. The FAA granted it a waiver, under Part 107 of the drone
regulations, to operate utility inspection drones beyond visual line-of-sight. This made it the first utility company in the United States to get this
approval. Under the waiver, the company is allowed to operate drones within a designated area 20 miles north of Denver International Airport. Secondly, the company’s pilots are allowed to operate utility inspection drones that are 55 pounds or less.
Xcel Energy has also established strategic partnerships with several entities, namely;
- Northern Plains UAS Test Site
- Phoenix Air UNMANNED LLC
- Altus Intelligence
- Harris Corp
After Denver, the company intends to apply for approval to use utility inspection drones beyond visual line of sight in other States.
2. Avitas Systems
This GE venture offers custom inspection services with a focus on the use of robotics, advanced predictive analytics, and other innovative technologies. The company provides utility inspection drones-as-a-service to utility companies.
Under a partnership with Nvidia, Avitas uses artificial intelligence, drones and data analytics to improve utility inspections. These drones, fitted
with specialized sensors, perform a number of functions including;
- Vegetation encroachment which includes inspecting treetops and other high places for potential risks
- Checking for bird’s nests or precariously hanging branches
- Monitoring flare stacks in oil refineries
- Inspecting rail tracks to check for weak points that may result in derailment
- Inspecting the frames of large airplane frames to check for any scratches and dents
According to Avitas, the use of utility inspection drones may reduce inspection costs and improve inspection turnarounds by up to 25%. Also, Avitas
notes that the use of drones may reduce downtimes by up to 15%.
FirstEnergy is one of the largest investor-owned utility companies in the United States. The company operates over 24,000 miles of electricity
transmission lines across the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions of the nation. This electric utility company is also leading the way in the use of
drones in the United States. More specifically, FirstEnergy is using utility inspection drones to check for bird nests. Notably, the drones target nests of
protected birds of prey.
This allows them to survey nesting locations on utility poles, electric wires and other equipment with a minimal invasion on the bird. These efforts are going a long way in the conservation of birds such as ospreys and eagles. Birds such as these are known to nest on high areas and are often as long as 3 feet. Nests on transmission towers and electricity wires may cause power outages. They are also a risk on the lives of these birds.
FirstEnergy drones are programmed to maintain a buffer zone of at least 330 feet with the nests. Each nest inspection lasts around 15 minutes. If a
nest without eggs is found, a line worker confirms the find and removes it. FirstEnergy workers then install special equipment to prevent the birds from nesting again in future. However, nests with eggs are left untouched.
FirstEnergy has already completed seven such inspections using drones and intends to complete more in the coming year.