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Why Austin Energy wants 150 drones in the "next couple years"

Austin Energy, the municipally-owned utility that serves roughly half a million customers in the Austin metropolitan area, prides itself on staying on the cutting edge of technological trends in the energy sector. So it’s no surprise that AE has already been using drones for three years and plans to dramatically expand their use in the near future.

Victor Carr, IT operations division manager for AE, tells me that the utility currently owns eight drones and hopes to have up to 150 in “the next couple years," including one at all of the utility's 82 substations. 

The devices came in handy during the major floods that Austin endured in October. AE was able to send drones out to examine the levels of lakes and assess whether the water had breached berms surrounding substations. Similarly, drones were deployed to assess damage in the days following Hurricane Harvey, which knocked out power for 79,000 AE customers and led to 609 downed wires and 50 replaced poles.  

In the past, Carr explained, the utility would either have to forgo some of those assessments or send a person out into a potentially dangerous situation. Unless it’s a major emergency, it’s unlikely that they’ll get access to a helicopter from the fire department.

Drones are also useful to more quickly and safely check up on routine maintenance issues. Beginning in late 2016, AE began flying drones to inspect its more than 600 miles of transmission lines.

"Because of the software and the drones capability of getting in closer and at different angles than even a helicopter can do we are going to be able to detect a lot more things and spot problems faster and fix them faster," Carlos Cordova, an AE spokesman, explained to local news channel KXAN at the time.

If a transmission line is down in a field that is hard for workers to access, the drone can perform valuable reconnaissance so the workers know where to go. Drones can also be used to deliver tools to employees working in areas that are inaccessible to vehicles.

AE’s drones range in size, capabilities and, of course, price. There are two two Inspire 1s, two Phantoms 3s, two Phantom 4 Pro Plus, and two DJI Matrice 600 Pros.

The most expensive was the DJI Matrice 600 Pro, which cost $10,000 when the city purchased it, said Carr. Since then the price has gone down significantly.

“They’ve paid for themselves probably 20 times by now,” he said. “They let us do some things that we just couldn't do in the past.”

For instance, in the pre-drone era, said Carr, “If we wanted to inspect a line running under a bridge, it would take so much money to do that. Now we can do it with just one pilot and a couple hours.”

Carr figures that it has been difficult for some utilities to view drones as “anything more than a toy,” but that by this point the obvious benefits of the technology should make the devices no-brainers.

In the coming years, drones will become even more sophisticated . “We’re working on a drone automation project to see if we can automate them to go for various incidents,” said Carr. In that case, he said, “there'd be no need for drone operators.”

He envisions a situation where connected utility poles send a signal if they’re hit by a car, prompting a drone to fly to the scene to survey the situation. The drone would send video and location coordinates to 911 dispatchers, alerting them to send an ambulance.

Carr believes that AE’s strides with drones can become part of a coordinated effort across multiple city agencies, notably the police and fire departments. The agencies should be able to call on each other when they’re in need of some extra help. Right now, however, drone operators at each agency have different training and processes. Carr is working to set up a course that will teach any city employees involved in drone operation a uniform set of standards. 

Content Discussion

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

Interesting stuff, Jack. It sounds like AE is an early adopter of drone technology. Do you have a sense of how far behind other utilities in the U.S. might typically be? 

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