You only have to look at recent California wildfires to understand why line contractors and electric utilities are more interested than ever in managing their line infrastructure. In several cases, fires have been linked directly to failed lines or other equipment that helped spark blazes during very dry weather conditions.
However, utilities often struggle to manage infrastructure that can include hundreds of miles of remote transmission lines that are difficult to access by vehicle or on foot. While helicopter or airplane flyovers remain the most common approach to inspecting these lines, drones—unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—are a welcome alternative in many situations, such as inspections and other tasks.
Even just a few years ago, most UAV news coverage focused on the extremes of their use as either hobbyist gadgets or military surveillance and weaponry. More recently, however, these unmanned aircraft have begun serving useful commercial purposes. Large farms have adopted them for surveying crops, and real estate agents use them to take dramatic aerial photos of homes and other properties they’re marketing. Utilities, too, are bringing the devices on board to help oversee their broad categories of assets, including all those miles of remote transmission lines.
“They’re primarily a tool used for maintenance and inspection,” said David Benowitz, head of research for DroneAnalyst, Redwood City, Calif., a consulting firm tracking the drone industry. Vegetation management is a big application because line managers track where foliage might need trimming back or is already overlapping conductors. “We’re also seeing more regulatory inspections for power towers and also to deliver equipment—maybe a lineman leaves a tool on the ground and the drone delivers it.”
Most frequently, drones are used to carry cameras, acting as a utility’s or contractor’s eyes in the sky, though not always in the way you might think. It’s not really photos themselves that utilities often seek, according to Benowitz.
“You use the photos to create something else,” he said, describing an application in which the flyover target is a utility-scale solar array that is falling short on production.
In that case, the drone’s images might be digitally corrected to remove terrain effects and paired with GPS data. After adding cloud-based artificial intelligence, multiple images of the array can be stitched together to identify where, for example, a single panel might be overheating.
Line contractors and utilities turn to different kinds of drones depending on whether their needs are for a relatively small area or spread out over a distance—mapping a solar array or performing an up-close inspection of a pole-mounted transformer, versus vegetation management on a miles-long line. Multirotor drones that can hover in place are the better option for localized needs, while fixed-wing models that are more like miniature airplanes are the choice for long-distance line work.
“Multirotors are often used for power pole inspections—linemen will often have their own drone to take a close-up look at the insulator,” said Chase Fly, global sales manager for Delair, a French manufacturer of fixed-wing drones. “But if we’re talking about mapping overhead or inspections overhead, multirotors do it slower.”
Vijay Somandepalli, co-founder and chief technology officer of multirotor manufacturer and service provider American Robotics, Marlborough, Mass., agreed that each type offers advantages to meet a contractor’s varied needs.
“Electric utilities tend to use both types of drone, though multirotor drones are more commonly used for close inspection work,” he said. “Inspection of linear infrastructure, such as transmission lines, is best suited for fixed-wing drones, which can fly for much longer times and distances. But the operation of fixed-wing drones requires more training and specialized skill, compared to multirotor drones.”
Who’s at the controls
While contractor or utility use of drones is widespread, it varies whether or not those companies actually own the devices.
“Today, utilities both own drones as well as contract out for services, depending on their internal technology and innovation policy-drivers and resources,” Somandepalli said. “Operating a fully in-house, drone-based data-collection program requires a significant investment, not only in hardware, but also a well thought-out and robust program to take in the data the drone collects and process it down to information other operational divisions within the utility can use.”
“There’s a lot of nuance to it,” Benowitz added, describing the hybrid approaches some contractors or utilities are adopting. “I may only need someone to capture the photos,” he said, noting that some companies already have in-house processing abilities to make drone-captured images useful. “The main question is, do they have enough trained pilots to do the work they need to do?”
For contractors or utilities that do their own UAV operations, the pilots might not be who you’d think of. First off, their previous flight hours might have been with a joystick instead of in the cockpit of an actual plane.
“We’re seeing that the drone department doesn’t sit within the aviation department, but more in the engineering department,” Benowitz said, describing pilots’ profiles. “I’ve had a lot of dinners with linemen who work with drones—they tend to be younger, the youngest guy in the office who plays video games.”
A lot of women are involved in developing standard operating procedures and in managerial and safety roles, he said.
Building out their own drone-flight and image-processing operations—especially as they first explore the technologies—doesn’t make sense for all utilities. Some outsource the entire program to contractors to handle the drone flights and subsequent data analysis.
“Approaching drone-enabled information delivery as a service reduces the annual cost for utilities to the lowest possible point, and reduces the barrier to entry,” Somandepalli said. “With such a model, utilities will also be freed of the burden of maintenance and can have access to the latest and greatest in hardware as well as data analytics.”
American Robotics is a leading provider of such services. Its multirotor Scout drones are designed for fully autonomous operation in remote locations. The drones are one step in a full-service solution the company offers that also includes data processing with thermographic images for identifying current hot spots.
Barriers to full automation
American Robotics received a recent boost to its business with the award by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of a waiver to existing rules governing beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) drone operation. Under Part 107 of the Code of Federal Regulations, which governs small commercial drone operations, most drone operators are required to maintain visual contact with their UAVs. A number of drone operators, including electric utilities, have received partial waivers from this requirement, but American Robotics is the first manufacturer to receive a blanket waiver for all its products.
A key concern for regulators is a UAV’s ability to sense when it’s getting close to another aircraft and get out of the way, which is why Part 107 now requires most operators to keep their drones in sight during flight. American Robotics is the first manufacturer able to prove to the FAA its ability to meet this safety goal, among others. Benowitz said this approach, which gets away from the need for every user to apply for individual waivers, will be critical to drones’ broader commercial adoption.
“The future of BVLOS is going through ‘type’ certification,” which is done by the manufacturer, he said. Currently, well-funded package-delivery services are the most able to afford the expensive waiver-approval process. Shifting to a one-time, upfront cost to the manufacturer would lift the burden for contractors, utilities and others to each apply on their own.
“If a drone is type-certified for BVLOS, then a utility can buy it and use it for BVLOS,” Benowitz said.
Taking a small step toward expanding BVLOS opportunities, the FAA recently approved a new standard to aid identification of drones’ owners and operators while they’re in flight. A new remote ID requirement will go into effect next year, mandating UAVs to broadcast their location, registration number, speed, altitude and pilot’s location. This will be through a radio-frequency signal accessible using a smartphone app. The broadcast capability can be achieved using a drone with built-in broadcasting or an after-market module attached to the UAV.
Data, not aircraft
Figuring out the BVLOS regulatory issues to create more autonomous capabilities will be critical to expanding UAV use over the next five years or so, Somandepalli said.
“Until humans are no longer required to be part of on-the-ground operations, it’s difficult to make the case for drones in most scenarios,” he said. “Imagine if every time a logistics robot moved across the warehouse floor, a human had to follow it around keeping their hands on a controller and their eyes fixed. At the end of the day, our industry’s product is data, not aircraft. With true automation comes the ability to collect a new category of data not previously possible, and, as a result, a new category of valuable analytics and insight.”
Fly is hopeful the BVLOS question will be dealt with. Additionally, he sees growing opportunities for U.S. drone manufacturers, which he said may have turned a corner in efforts to grow their market share in the face of strong Chinese competition.
“I’m optimistic—technology will continue to progress, and the United States is in a really good position,” Fly said. “A lot of the innovation is happening in the United States, for the United States, and the United States has a burgeoning drone industry.”