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The Drones Have Landed

Drones have taken the world by storm in the past few years. Long synonymous with warfare, unmanned aerial vehicles are now being snatched up by enthusiasts and deployed by a growing number of industries. They allow farmers to better monitor crops, real estate agents to capture overhead pictures of properties, and movie directors to shoot scenes once only possible for the highest budget blockbusters. The drone’s burgeoning popularity is evidenced in sales statistics: No less than 3 million were purchased in 2017.

Electric utilities, despite their reputation as luddites, have generally been quick to adopt the new technology. Of the three that I reached out to, two already had operational drone programs and the other was planning to start testing in 2019.

Puget Sound Energy (PSE), which provides electricity and natural gas to much of western Washington, began experimenting with drones in 2016. Looking to improve their incident response operations, the company decided to test drones, planes, helicopters, and aquatic vehicles to figure out the most efficient combination.

They discovered that the right tool for the job depended almost entirely on the incident’s scale and location. “A drone would be perfect if we needed to inspect a line located a mile away across a lake,” explained one of the utility’s drone expert, David Tyler. However, he continued, they simply wouldn’t be adequate for emergencies spread over a larger area, like the recent fires in California. In such cases, David suggested using planes to get a an overview of the situation before sending in helicopters for more precise work.

Although PSE is still getting a feel for drones, they’ve already used them in some rural regions and for special operations. Recently, for example, drones allowed them to scan a ecologically important swamp that they otherwise would have been forced to disturb with boats.

Of course, drone use is complicated by no fly zones. National parks, military bases, and the land surrounding airports are all off limits. However, David assured me that the Federal Aviation Administration could make exceptions in special circumstances.

Hawaii Electric Company (HEC) has droned even more extensively. During the Kilauea eruption in May, drones flew through Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park to assess damage and identify downed lines. Natural disasters aside, drones allow HEC to get to circumvent the islands’ inconvenient terrain. Long unable to complete an access trail due to thick vegetation and steep drops, the Oahu crew was finally able to identify a hospitable path after flying a drone over the zone.

Most incredibly, one of HEC’s most skilled pilots successfully threaded a drone into a power plant’s boiler  to check for damage. Such an operation would usually require inspectors to physically enter the structure and install extensive scaffolding to get a closer look. The drone footage allowed the operation planners to spot the necessary repairs beforehand, speeding up the project and reducing any possibility of injury.

All of the representatives I talked to predicted that drones would continue to grow more prevalent in the coming years. David, from PSE, pointed out that changing perceptions make drones more adoptable, saying: “I think they weren’t implemented earlier because they were seen as something people take on vacations to take pictures.” However, the technology’s usability is probably even more important than its image. Recently, drones have become vastly more affordable and high-tech. Newer models fly farther and longer, take crystal clear images, shoot 4k video, and can even include infrared scanners. Soon, most drones will be automated, limiting costly accidents and freeing up employees to focus on other responsibilities.

Still new on the scene, drones have already changed the way many utilities respond to incidents. Expect them to become a staple in the industry going forward.

Content Discussion

Karen Marcus's picture
Karen Marcus on December 11, 2018

Great article, Henry. Do you have a sense of new ways electric utilities might start to use drones in 2019? 

Henry Craver's picture
Henry Craver on December 12, 2018

Thanks, Karen! Not sure about next year, but within 5 years I imagine drones being outfitted with dexterous tools that will allow operators to actually perform basic repairs remotely.  

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