In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, much of the electrical infrastructure was damaged and had to be rebuilt. Restringing power lines through the jungle is a dangerous pursuit that ordinarily would require helicopters. Duke Power, the company undertaking the project, tried a different tack to get the job done: drones.
An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, is an aircraft piloted remotely using onboard technologies. Its utility is widespread and includes aerial photography, being launched inside huge tanks for infrastructure-inspection purposes, inspecting pipelines in remote, hard-to-access areas, and more.
When the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. studied the future potential of drones, it found their adoption had grown from a market size of about $40 million in 2012 to more than $1 billion by 2017. Drones, literally, are taking off.
“The geometric growth of the use of sensors, including cameras, coupled with artificial intelligence in numerous industries, has produced significantly greater capability and with significantly less resource consumption at far more affordable prices,” said Tod Northman, attorney and partner at Tucker Ellis, Cleveland, who has expertise in aviation law. “Such progress will continue unabated and offer functionality bound only by the industry’s creativity. As we look to other industries for their deployment, we will discover even more uses.”
For electrical contractors, drones may enable workers to access and transport materials on job sites that may otherwise be difficult to navigate. In addition, they may be used to take photos for planning purposes, condition assessment or other needs. They are one more tool that can be used to stay competitive and improve the overall quality and speed of work.
Data gathering and inspection
“Drones have multiple applications and proven use cases within the maintenance, assessment and inspection industries,” said Frank DeMartin, SVP of sales and marketing for Yuneec, an Ontario, Calif.-based drone company. “Drones have the technology and capability to complete inspections on cell towers, solar panels, wind turbines, power lines, pipelines, and all types of infrastructure, providing a safer, and more economical alternative to human inspection. Thermal and high-res capabilities on cameras, combined with stability controls, give drones all the tools needed to complete maintenance processes on infrastructure in both densely populated or remote areas.”
Yuneec’s H520 drone, for example, is ideal for these applications. It is capable of capturing thousands of images through periodic missions to generate inspection data. Such data may be aggregated and analyzed to understand wear, degradation, maintenance review and better overall assessment of the object being inspected.
Drone technology is not fully mature. The design is continuously being improved to meet demands and needs of users working in a host of environments and conditions. As they progress with durability and maneuverability while becoming more affordable, their uses will increase. Drones are disruptive and represent positive change, for ECs, safety inspectors and other collaborative workers who work side-by-side with such contractors.
“One of the most promising deployments for aerial drones will come from their potential to offer quicker, safer, less expensive [and] improved maintenance offshore,” Northman said. “As the price of the technology drops and its functionality increases, drones are also becoming easier to operate in all conditions. Deploying sensors of all types in otherwise impossible-to-access areas is another powerful benefit. In sum, aerial drones will bring profound improvement to maintenance.”
Information-gathering is a key attribute and benefit of drones. With the use of sophisticated cameras, sensors and other technology, they may gather precise data that was unapproachable previously.
“While the physical improvements in UAV technology are remarkable, the rapid improvement and affordability of artificial intelligence will bring by far the greater change to the industry,” Northman said. “Working in concert with boggling precision, drones will be able to swarm areas to collect and process previously unimaginable amounts of information and to process and respond to the collected information immediately. As the UAV systems gain experience, using artificial neural networks, the systems will be able to anticipate, diagnose and solve problems on the fly.”
As in Puerto Rico, many stand to benefit from drones as they are used for a multitude of purposes. In the future, drones will be part of a standard outfitting or tool kit.
“Geometric gains in processing power combined with nearly unimaginable data collection capabilities will happen swiftly,” Northman said. “We are only beginning to see how the power of UAV systems lies in their information-processing more than their whizzy flight moves.” Editor’s note: For more on drones, see the security focus on page 78.