Utility drones could inspect equipment, scan for outages

Utility drones could inspect equipment, scan for outages

LITHONIA, Ga. (AP) — When tornadoes & hurricanes topple power lines in the future, flying drones might be the first to pinpoint the damage.

Power companies across the United States are testing whether small drones can spot trouble on transmission lines or inspect equipment deep inside hard-to-reach power plant boilers.

That's just for starters. Researchers & industry executives predict the drones could provide security surveillance to deter vandalism on remote gear & make it safer for utility workers to climb poles & towers. One of the country's largest power companies, Southern Co., says it hopes drones can eventually identify storm damage in the Southeast & allow it to increase its routine inspections.

p>About a dozen utility or service companies have sought permission to use drones for similar purposes.

"One of the biggest challenges is going out & assessing the system," said Andrew Phillips, who has directed drone research for the Electric Power Research Institute, an electric industry trade group. "Can we use UAVs to speed that up & do it at a much-faster pace & just getting information? What's the situation? What resources do I need?"

Southern Co. is now flying a roughly 7-pound drone at a site east of Atlanta where it normally trains linemen. During a recent demonstration flight, the Aeryon SkyRanger buzzed overhead, flying along an inert transmission line with a camera capable of zooming on tiny imperfections from far away.

The drone can fly for approximately 20 minutes even in choppy wind & offensive weather. Right now, the utility inspects its 27,000 miles of transmission lines in the Southeast using planes & helicopters. After a storm, workers in trucks must often scour the countryside looking for damage, a time-consuming task.

Southern Co. described the drones in federal filings as "significantly safer" than having workers inspect lines in low-flying aircraft or bucket trucks. Aircraft can crash, & bucket trucks can be cumbersome or impossible to drive through storm-damaged or remote areas.

A drone could "point to areas, point to exactly where you need to go, point to what you might need to take with you to do the repair," said Larry Monroe, the senior vice president for research & environmental affairs at Southern Co.

Still experimenting with the technology, Southern Co. officials hope to test a drone near an electrified transmission line by early fall.

Some have voiced concerns. The Air Line Pilots Association International, a labor union, said drone pilots should be licensed for commercial flights like its members, a higher standard than the government required of Southern Co. The National Agricultural Aviation Association says the drones should be better equipped to avoid collision with low-flying crop dusters & other aircraft.

Industry researchers have already learned a few lessons experimenting with drones. The Electric Power Research Institute & approximately 10 other utilities conducted drone tests in Canada last year, Phillips said. The most-reliable drones with satisfactory camera optics generally cost more than $20,000. A drone capable of flying beyond a ground-based controllers' line of sight easily tops $100,000.

Drones alone cannot diagnose complicated technical problems.

"It's effortless to go up & make some rad pictures," Phillips said. "It's pretty complex to do a real inspection & obtain value out of it."

Beyond inspections, utility officials have discussed using drones to place climbing safety gear for utility workers on tall structures & thread the guide lines used to hoist larger transmission cables into place. Workers now use helicopters, bows & arrows or walk.

Xcel Energy recently used a drone to inspect the boiler of three power plants in Colorado & Minnesota. The boilers are typically eight to 10 stories tall & have thousands of components that must be inspected. Normally, the company's workers spend a week building scaffolding & using ladders & suspension devices to inspect boiler equipment. Doing the same job by drone took a day & was less risky for workers.

"We received the same quality results," said Michael Lamb, Xcel Energy's vice president of operating services. "This has received a lot of potential."


Follow Ray Henry on Twitter: https://twitter.com/rhenryAP.

Source: “Associated Press”