Utility Drone Future in the Balance?

Feb. 24, 2015
Commercial drone regulation could limit the usefulness of drones for utilities. What do we need to know and do to secure our future use of this new technology?

Our colleague Doug Houseman recently posted a blog (http://tdworld.com/grid-opt-smart-grid/new-faa-rules-will-impact-use-drones-line-work) discussing the potential uses of utility aerial drones and the Federal Aviation Administration’s and Department of Transportation’s commercial drone regulation framework.

When I ran the system operations division at Austin Energy (years ago when drones were science fiction), I know the patrollers in our GIS section would have been glad to have had drones assist them in their distribution line patrol / inspection work. I can see drones being particularly beneficial where distribution circuits run through residential backyards or across difficult terrain. On top of normal operations, I can imagine drones having the potential to rapidly locate and assess storm damage and thereby help allocate crews, determine material requirements, and reduce restoration times.

As Doug points out in his blog, the commercial drone regulation framework, as it is currently being proposed, could severely limit utility drone usefulness and effectiveness. 

Evidently, the FAA and DOT are taking a conservative approach toward the deployment a new technology that would be used in close proximity to the public. Also, similar to smart meters, some utility customers may view utility drones as another “big brother” intrusion into privacy. Additionally, doesn't the term “drone swarms” conjure up an image of robotic killer bees? A new term for that function might be a good idea.

The question I have is this: How should we be using utility drones and what should the regulations allow?


When the lights go out after a major event, basic drone aerial damage assessment could materially and substantially aid in the speed and safety of visual storm damage assessment via thermal and remote transmit camera technology. These systems could/should be funded on a shared services model to also support other emergency assessment needs of local communities. 

I believe that in major storm events while telemetry / DMS / OMS notification and indeed self-healing technologies continue to improve, the fact is our linemen are the ones put in harm’s way the most when doing initial storm damage assessment work. It seems an absolute no-brainer to me that this should be an approved (and well regulated) use case to complement ground crews and augment their ability to access downed lines that may be blocked by trees or other obstruction. 

Down the lin,e as things develop further and costs drop, there is also ample evidence to have a use case for more regular aerial visual and LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) inspections that happen today via helicopter on high-voltage systems. 

We have done work in this area, and we know that the gyro-stabilized camera systems supporting these applications are very similar if not identical to those used on military drone applications. 

The cameras used on drones for field data management for the military are, in some cases, the exact same cameras/technology we are using for LiDAR runs by helicopter. I don’t know the economics of these higher-end drones vs. helicopter today, but clearly this bears close review. 

These are two simple and important uses cases the market seems well aware of. I am sure there are many more.


What's not to like about drones in utility operations? They would be very useful in applications on transmission and distribution systems, at power plants and for general surveillance and security functions. 

During storm restoration, they could significantly reduce the need to depend on manpower survey work to assess damage in the first place and the measurement of progress well into a storm. Surely federal regulation of drones would accommodate utility applications, and recognize the professional training and safety precautions characteristically practiced by the industry.


Drones represent one of the most transformative technologies that have appeared on the horizon not just for utilities but for everyone else. Drones allow, for the first time, a mechanism for inspecting everything both during normal and during emergency situations. Drones can perform so many tasks much faster, better, and much more easily than humans. While the most common image of a drone is that of something that flies under remote control but it also includes anything that is remote controlled that can crawl, walk or fly. 

North American utilities are generally spread over broad expanses of land that very often include downtown/urban densely populated areas and also large rural sparsely populated areas. The problems in downtown/urban areas are very different from those afflicting the rural areas. For the same set of reasons, the benefits and use of drones in downtown/urban areas will be very different from those of rural areas.

So what? Let us look at some key areas where drones can be of use:

·Vegetation management: Make routine survey trips over transmission and major distribution lines to track growth of vegetation in and around them. Sophisticated imagery can be used to track growth over time and drive vegetation management routine.

·Transmission line monitoring: One or more of either flying drones or line-based crawlers can move over the transmission lines and perform inspections of lines and insulators.

·Storm/damage assessment: Fly over vast storm impacted territories to create a visual image of the damage allowing utility service centers to develop a prioritized list of outage causes even before people can drive to the locations.

·Underground cable maintenance: Underground cables are one of the most difficult components to inspect for maintenance and/or to fix when something goes wrong (e.g., a fault). Crawlers can go into the conduit and perform close-by inspections of the cable both visually (using imagery) and by checking other aspects of the cabling.

This list can go on and on.

What is the key to drone success? The key to this success is a combination of regulation and business transformation. The first focuses on what can be done by the drones and under what constraints. The second one is equally if not more important and that is about utility transformation. The utility needs to adjust its processes so that the true value of the technology can be delivered.

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