How important are drones to transmission line maintenance?
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- May 13, 2020 5:20 pm GMT
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Scrolling through my all things power news stream this morning, I came across this PG&E press release on some of their new transmission inspection efforts. Just in case you don’t have time to read the rather long statement, the utility will be using drones and helicopters to check in on power lines in northern California.
To me, it seems that many of PG&E’s new tech rollouts over the past couple years, although well intentioned, fail to address the root problem. Northern California is now extremely vulnerable to wildfires, and the only thing that can mitigate the risk from a utility standpoint is burying the power lines. Of course, building a new underground grid costs a lot of money, and money is one thing PG&E doesn’t have right now.
Just because a new drone program doesn’t cut it in NorCal, does that mean the buzzing bots don’t deserve a spot in any utility’s maintenance arsenal? Absolutely not. Deployed intelligently, drones can be of great help.
Take the case of Hawaii, for example. During the Kilauea eruption two years ago, 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 clear 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.
It will be interesting to see how drones improve in the coming years. I expect to see them become more automated, cutting down on pilot training time and making more precise operations possible. Will the become a silver bullet for grid maintenance? Probably not anytime soon, but they'll still play an important role.