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Energy Companies Use Drones to Inspect Equipment Quickly, Safely, and Inexpensively

Energy infrastructure repairs can be costly, which is why many utilities use a proactive approach to detect small issues before they worsen. Unfortunately, however, the inspection process can also be costly, as well as dangerous and time-consuming. Enter drones, which — though not a perfect solution — can resolve many issues involved with examining a variety of equipment types.

Drone Capabilities

Drones can be used from the very beginning of a project to assess potential sites for placing equipment. According to Louise Wood, writing for POWER, drones “can very quickly provide high-resolution imagery, with plenty of detail for a site manager to consider.” She goes on to note, “Some estimates suggest that about 90% of the time it takes to carry out an assessment can be cut, which is a cost savings.” From there, site managers can use data collected by the drones to estimate costs for materials, labor, and other critical needs.

Tildy Bayar, writing for Power Engineering International, explains that once equipment is in place, it can be monitored using drones, which deploy several types of analysis (including thermal, laser, optical, and ultraviolet) to determine which pieces need repair or replacement. This fact-based approach prevents such assumptions as “older lines must be replaced before newer ones because they must be in worse condition” (sometimes the opposite is true).

Still, not everyone is convinced that drones are the answer. Some see the investment to develop skills in-house as outweighing the possible cost savings down the road. One answer to this concern is the Drones-as-a-Service model, in which companies that already have drone operation, data collection, and data analysis expertise hire themselves out to perform these services for others.

Helping Renewable Sectors

Drones are particularly useful for examining equipment at wind, solar, and hydro plants. With wind turbines, for example, the old method involved having an inspector rappel down the structure. This dangerous mission can instead be undertaken by drones, which can more quickly and easily collect needed data.

With PV installations, drones can examine panel cells more closely than a human can, giving operators critical information about minor damage or temperature variations that should be addressed; in addition, more surfaces can be examined more quickly, providing a more accurate picture of the state of the installation as a whole.

For hydroelectric plants, underwater drones can fulfill the same purpose, replacing the need to hire expensive divers to perform the same function. These drones can often execute inspections more quickly than people, and can more easily fit into tight spaces that would otherwise go overlooked.

Dealing With Data

Giving operators greater visual insight is key, but it’s just one half of the drone equation; data is the other. In an article for Renewable Energy World, Jennifer Runyon explains how drone operators address “data fatigue.” One company, she writes, “gives customers a report that highlights the most important features that the drone identified.” In time, the collected data may be useful in helping energy companies anticipate how certain types of damage affect equipment operation and how frequently certain parts should be replaced. Runyon suggests that this information may eventually even be used to guide how parts are manufactured in the first place.

Given that enterprise drone shipments are expected to “reach 805,000 in 2021 with a five-year CAGR of 51% from 102,600 in 2016,” according to Andrew Meola of Business Insider, the energy industry has every reason to be among those to take full advantage of this technology. While certain aspects of drone inspections, data collection, and data analysis may need adjustment, the benefits of safety, cost, convenience, and accuracy generally outweigh any temporary challenges.

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