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How important are drones to transmission line maintenance?

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Henry Craver's picture
Small Business Owner Self-employed

As a small business owner, I'm always trying to find ways to cut costs and boost the dependability of my services. To that end, I've become increasingly invested in learning about energy saving...

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  • May 13, 2020

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. 



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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 13, 2020

The safety and efficiency of what can be accomplished with drones vs. sending out physical crews seems like a game changer, and more and more utilities are indeed jumping on that. I also know that increased focus on sensors and automated asset management is taking the role previously that required physical crews-- I wonder if those two aspects are going to eat into each other or if there will remain unique cases that requires both to be employed moving forward

Steve Beilstein's picture
Steve Beilstein on May 14, 2020

I definitely see in the near future, drones outfitted with more sensors such as LiDAR, Corona cameras, thermal imaging, etc, and using AI to record broken insulators or degraded hardware, along with vegetation and other potential clearance issues, all while flying and inspecting based on pre-planned or automated routes with out much manual piloting required. An engineer or inspector would develop the routes and plans in advance and the drones would just fly them in the field. However, in heavily vegetated areas, there will still need to be a ground based vegetation management crew, and they will also likely do regular inspections while clearing vegetation under the major transmission lines.  As soon as restrictions are lifted this will be a game changer and be much safer than lineman having to climb structures to inspect hardware. It should also be much more efficient.

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