Here’s How Drones Keep Utility Workers Safe
- Feb 24, 2022 5:18 pm GMT
Despite major strides, utility work remains one of the most dangerous industries in the United States. New technology may help change this. With drones, utility contractors may be able to perform some jobs without exposing workers to any risks at all.
While still experimental, drones are becoming increasingly common in utilities and related industries, like construction. If effective, drones could help to make utility work much safer within the next few years.
What Safety Risks Do Utility Workers Face?
Energy industry workers are likely familiar with the safety risks associated with utility work, but many outside the industry don’t always realize how dangerous utility work can be.
Slip, fall and trip hazards are common on utility worksites. Workers may be exposed to both the risk of electrocution and stuck-by hazards, depending on whether or not heavy machinery or equipment is present.
Like workers in many industries, utility workers are also at risk of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) — injuries of the joints, muscles and tendons that often come from repetitive movements that can strain and harm the body’s musculoskeletal system.
Most utility companies will employ a few different strategies to mitigate these safety risks.
Personal protective equipment, including particulate filters, eye protection and rubber gloves, is a great way to minimize a variety of risks. Stretching and flexibility exercises, as well as working practices that emphasize good ergonomics, can help to mitigate the risk of MSDs.
The right working practices can also make falls, struck-by incidents and electrocutions much less likely.
Even the best safety planning can fall short, however, and fail to prevent a serious injury or fatality (SIF).
For this reason, many utility companies are looking for new technologies that may help them boost jobsite safety. Drones are one emerging tool that may help utility companies prevent SIFs by completely moving workers out of harm’s way.
How Can Drones Make Utility Workers Safer?
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also called drones, can perform tasks in place of a human worker — potentially allowing a utility company to reduce the risk of falls, MSDs, electrocutions and exposure to toxic chemicals.
Different utility companies may use drones in unique ways, depending on their particular needs and job strategy.
Using Drones to Make Inspections Faster and Safer
One common emerging application of drones is drone inspection. A trained pilot can use a drone to remotely perform inspections of dangerous structures, areas or equipment. Because drones are highly mobile and can easily move above and around tall objects, drones can both accelerate inspections and allow utility companies to keep inspectors out of harm’s way.
Typically, utility companies rely on human inspectors when they need to investigate a large asset or structure. These inspectors may have to climb scaffolding or ladders to properly investigate power lines, poles, transformers or other utility equipment. Heights put inspectors at significant risk, and proximity to high-power equipment can also be dangerous.
Drones can also be used to inspect areas, structures or equipment that would otherwise be impossible for inspectors to reach — like the small spaces of an industrial chimney.
The drone is typically equipped with a video camera that can capture visual data, but pilots may also use ultrasonic sensors, recorders and other equipment to gather additional information. These sensors allow drones to sub in for inspectors during both visual inspections as well as more in-depth inspections.
Drone inspections can be performed both manually or automatically, depending on the jobsite and the drone being used. Automatic inspections are typically the most effective on large jobsites where the pilot won’t need much complex maneuvering to inspect the site.
These inspections are less labor-intensive than manual inspections and can be faster — the technology and planning they require may make inspections more expensive, however.
In addition to the utility industry, drone inspection is also increasingly common in agriculture, construction, manufacturing and other industries where inspections can be both time-consuming and dangerous.
Drones for Utility Industry Companies Are Already Making Workers Safer
While drone inspections are still experimental, utility companies around the world are already using drones to keep their workers safe.
For example, Cyberhawk is a visual asset and project management services provider that utilizes drones to streamline inspections for the oil and gas and utility industries. According to the company’s site, Cyberhawk uses drones for both aerial surveys as well as close visual and thermal inspections of “high, live and difficult to reach structures and facilities.”
Other major players in the drone inspection vertical include Delair, PrecisionHawk, and Sterblue. PrecisionHawk is also one of the few U.S. drone companies to have obtained a BVLOS 107 waiver, allowing the company to conduct certain types of beyond-line-of-sight drone operations.
The FAA calls this waiver the “holy grail” of waivers because of how difficult it is to obtain.
Each of these companies offers similar services — drone inspections for utility equipment and facilities — helping to provide utility companies with a safer alternative to traditional inspection strategies.
These companies often develop their own in-house drone and drone piloting technology that may help to make drone inspections even more effective as the industry grows.
Experts forecast that the drone inspection market is on track to grow significantly over the next few years. As a result, utility companies will have even more options when it comes to drone inspection companies in the near future.
Drones May Become Essential Safety Equipment for Utilities
Utility workers, and utility inspectors in particular, face significant safety risks. Falls, slips and electrocution are all common hazards that workers may navigate in daily work.
Drone inspections are helping to make utility work much safer. With a drone inspection, companies can inspect essential equipment and facilities without putting an inspector at risk.
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