Courtesy of Hill Country Aerial.
UAVs can be a cost-effective option for distribution line patrols, and they do not disturb the neighbors.

The Drone Advantage

April 4, 2016
Fully integrating drone technology to the grid is more a matter of when than how.

The smart grid has become airborne on the wings of drone technology. This technology is poised to change the industry’s game plan in a big way. Globally, drones have been tagged as the hottest technology on the planet. They have long been the darling of the military. Today, civilian hobbyists have embraced the technology by the millions, and the commercial use of drones for mapping, inspections and environmental research is getting the attention of industries worldwide.

This is reminiscent of the time when aircraft were introduced to the grid and only a few saw the potential. Someone jumped into a plane and began taking photos with a handheld camera. It did not take long until planes were armed with all manner of sensors, instruments and cameras. Soon utilities graduated to more sophisticated methods such as light detection and ranging (LiDAR) equipment, thermal imaging and high-density photogrammetric cameras. Today, it is hard to imagine not using aerial monitoring for inspection of transmission lines, vegetation management and other data-gathering tasks.

Technology never stops improving, adapting or moving forward. Now the power industry is entering a new territory with the introduction of commercialized drones, and these tiny aircraft are game changers. After the 2003 Northeast blackout, utilities were required to inspect their transmission lines. Aerial inspections were a big part of the process, but they are expensive and require sending personnel to suspected towers for closer inspections.

The traditional method is time-consuming, dangerous and expensive, but drones offer an alternative. Unfortunately, it is a turbulent time for drones, and politically, there are issues slowing down the rapid adoption of this technology. It is hard to buck a technological trend that is gaining momentum and whose time has come.

On the Rise

Global spending on drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as many in the industry prefer them to be called, is growing at a fantastic rate. The Teal Group, a market research company, reported the world spent about $4 billion on UAVs in 2015 and projects UAV spending will increase to more than $14 billion by 2024. If the payloads UAVs carry — such as heat sensors, LiDAR, communications, and infrared sensors and electro-optics — are included in the 2015 spending, the amount increases by an additional $3.1 billion.

The problem is that, commercially, drone laws vary greatly from country to country, state to state and city to city. It is a hodgepodge of rules, regulations and laws. The European Union (EU) has been trying to consolidate regulations for all members, but it is a slow process. Within the EU, there are roughly 2,500 civil UAV operators doing business in agriculture, energy, land surveying, infrastructure monitoring, photography and other industries.

The EU has been supportive of this technology and distinguishes between commercial and recreational drone use, which has had a decided advantage in adapting UAVs to the marketplace. In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has taken the opposite approach and combined all civilian use of drones into one category, which greatly restricts the use of drones in commercial applications.

As a result, only about $131.7 million was spent in the U.S. during 2015 on the UAV T&D market, according to Navigant Research. The T&D market was not a large percentage of the overall 2015 UAV market, but Navigant projects future T&D spending will increase significantly. By 2024, Navigant estimates T&D spending will increase by roughly $4.1 billion as regulations catch up to the technology.

Phoenix Air conducts an aerial inspection of an energized substation using a Pulse Aerospace Vapor 55 UAS. Courtesy of NM Group.

All in the Name

In addition to the regulatory issues, drones have an image problem that impacts the technology’s commercial deployment. At issue is this question: Are drones toys, lethal weapons or a valuable new technology? The term “drone” carries negative baggage. Military drones usually come to mind first, followed by civilian crazies. UAV may be a better term to distance the commercial applications from the negativity, but the common vernacular has embraced drone and it is probably not going to change.

No matter what term is used to describe the aircraft, these high-tech devices are changing the way many do business. They are equipped with sophisticated communications gear, data-gathering sensors, cameras and computers. As a total package, UAVs are proving to be valuable to the power industry. While the $131.7 million figure may not seem like a lot compared to the total $4 billion spent on UAVs in 2015, it is a respectable amount of money for a new technology.

A UAV takes photos of conductor and hardware on a routine inspection patrol. Courtesy of Hill Country Aerial.

Political Hot Potato

From the FAA’s perspective, UAVs have to share the airspace with all air traffic, which has to be done safely and correctly. Fortunately, there is a light at the end of this bureaucratic tunnel. The FAA expects to issue new UAV regulations in June 2016 that will eliminate a great deal of confusion and result in rapid incorporation of commercial UAV applications for industries. In the meantime, there has been a work-around for the FAA regulations, allowing the limited deployment of commercial UAVs; it is called an exemption.

The FAA’s Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 included Section 333, which allows the FAA to grant an exemption from its regulations for operators of commercial UAVs. The company asking for the exemption has to meet stringnt requirements to get the exemption, but if it does, it is free to fly the UAVs.

In 2014, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) became the first utility in the U.S. to receive FAA approval to fly small drones as part of a research project. SDG&E was interested in drone technology for utility applications.

At the time, the cost of a drone with a camera was about $6,000. The price to lease a helicopter was around $2,000 per hour. It was easy to see a few hours of helicopter flying time would more than pay for the drone and, at the same time, enable the utility to gain some valuable drone experience.

By 2015, SDG&E’s research project had shown the value of the UAV, and the utility applied for an exemption. The FAA granted the exemption and SDG&E began to perform aerial inspections of its electric and gas facilities. At last report, SDG&E was expanding its drone fleet because of increased usage of the aircraft.

Some Turbulence

By the end of 2015, the FAA issued more than 1,000 Section 333 exemptions to companies across the U.S. Seven of these exemptions were given directly to electric utilities to operate their own UAVs. Many other utilities hired consultants to provide and fly UAVs on their transmission systems rather than obtain their own licenses and equipment. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems Internationally (AUVSI) reported Australia, France, Sweden and Japan also are allowing commercial UAV flights.

Nicholas Ferguson, NM Group’s senior vice president of business development, said, “On an international basis, we see regulation that is both more and less onerous than the U.S. For example, in Australia, regulation for beyond-visual-line-of-sight [BVLOS] flight is possible under the appropriate Civil Aviation Safety Authority UAV operator certificate and within certain project-specific situations. An example restriction would be a nighttime flight when less manned traffic is present.

“Multiple pilots can also be staged at regular intervals to extend visual line of sight [VLOS]. BLVOS and VLOS extension helps to open up the technical feasibility for transmission engineering applications, whereby it’s essential to capture an entire tension section in a single flight pass,” Ferguson continued. “In India, by contrast, the civil application of UAVs is currently on hold as the authorities are in the process of formulating regulations for certification and operation in civil airspace.”

AUVSI stated, “Commercial drones could pump almost $14 billion into the U.S. economy between 2015 and 2018, and over a 10-year period, create more than 100,000 jobs.”

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) has several projects investigating the use of UAVs on the grid, including two multiple vendor fly-offs and UAV workshops and conferences. In late 2015, EPRI put on the Unmanned Aircraft Systems for Transmission Applications workshop. EPRI also is planning to use its high-voltage research facility to determine the safety aspects of flying UAVs in close proximity to strong magnetic forces like those found in extra-high-voltage transmission lines.

The AUVSI figures are impressive, and the EPRI workshops give a good indication commercial UAV interest in the power industry is growing with the potential for having a major impact in the marketplace. True, this technology may be struggling to get off the ground, but if everyone is correct, that is a temporary condition. It will be resolved once all the regulatory authorities completely define the governing laws. One thing is certain: There is a great deal of pressure on regulatory agencies (local, state and federal). Drones have already proven they are too valuable to restrict their use to the fullest capabilities of the technology.

An operator checks out the flight controls of a UAV prior to conducting an inspection flight. Courtesy of Analemma Resources.

UAV and the Grid

UAV technology found its way to the grid several years ago, but it has been a slow process. Drones are proving to be powerful tools for utilities in the areas of maintenance inspections, storm recovery evaluations, construction surveying and maintenance work. Aerial inspections are a huge hit to the average utility’s maintenance budget every year. Worldwide, utilities spend millions of dollars each year inspecting their transmission system. With the right selection of sensors, UAVs can reduce that spending substantially, and it is safer than exposing personnel to the risks of climbing inspections.

Rotary-wing UAVs are adding a new dimension by being able to offer a different perspective for these inspections. These UAVs can hover and operate below the conductor on the tower. High-definition, image-stabilized cameras that provide details of hardware, insulators and mounting assemblies are now available, but before UAVs, this could only be seen by someone climbing the structure. If LiDAR equipment is added to the payload, the transmission line inspection also can include 3-D imaging from many different angles never before available. This is invaluable for tasks such as vegetation management and clearance compliance.

Transmission providers are not the only energy providers using UAVs; the generation side of the business has found many applications for these remarkable devices, as has the renewable energy sector. A power plant has many areas requiring inspection to determine what maintenance needs to be performed, ranging from the inside of boilers to the maze of piping found in plants. Wind and solar farms also require a great deal of inspection for maintenance. Turbines are complex, and technicians cover everything from the tip of the turbine blade to the tower that supports the nacelles.

By using a UAV for these inspections, there is no need to place personnel in dangerous positions requiring high-lift buckets, slings and climbing harnesses.

One unorthodox application is the detection of photovoltaic (PV) panels about to fail. A normal operating PV panel has a heat signature that increases prior to failure. If the solar farm has millions of PV modules, which large utility-scale farms do, how can this fact be used? Well, UAVs fitted with high-resolution thermal-imaging equipment can fly over the facility and quickly detect the panels that are about to fail. Then these panels can be scheduled for replacement during the next maintenance period.

Another unconventional application being investigated is cleaning PV panels using UAVs. Panel cleaning is important to the productivity of the facility. Dust and dirt collect on the panels and reduce the output, but cleaning is labor intensive. Old-school methods use manual labor or robots on rail systems to clean the panels. One experimental cleaning system being tested in Chile uses drones with a small brush attachment. The UAVs are faster, can cover the entire facility without humans having to relocate them, and they are gentler on the PV surfaces. The technology is constantly evolving, and innovations like this are the reason.

The Uses Are Many

Xcel Energy inspects more than 320,000 miles of electricity and natural gas infrastructure, mostly with helicopters. But in 2015, that started to change. Xcel Energy began using UAVs to inspect infrastructure, including energized substations in Texas, a rebuilt transmission line in North Dakota, a Minnesota wind farm and the interiors of boilers at some power plants in Minnesota and Colorado.

In February 2016, the utility upped its game tremendously when announcing it would be working with contractors Environmental Consultants Inc. and FLōT as the first utility in the U.S. to conduct a BVLOS UAS mission for an FAA-approved research and development project. The flight will survey a transmission line in an area known as the Canadian River Breaks north of Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle.

Xcel Energy released a statement saying, “When this research and development project is completed, Xcel Energy will become the first utility to receive and use the FAA certificate of authorization to perform a beyond-visual line-of-sight mission for research and development purposes.”

Another utility on the cutting edge of UAV technology is Idaho Power. For nearly 25 years, Idaho Power has been monitoring the spawning of the native fish (salmon and steelhead) population in the Snake River. Traditionally, this was done with helicopters and observers, but UAV technology is changing that. Idaho Power began a drone monitoring program a few years ago and found it can count fish nests more accurately from video shot from a UAV than counting from the front seat of an aircraft. It is also safer to use a drone than a low-flying helicopter exposed to the changeable wind found above the Snake River.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) is taking an innovative step right out of the space program. PG&E and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have joined together to add some martian technology to the gas transmission grid. JPL adapted a methane sniffer it developed for the Mars rover for gas pipeline leak detection work. This sensor is 1,000 times more sensitive than present technology. It can be mounted in a handheld apparatus for ground crews or modified to a UAV-mounted system. The UAVs will fly over the pipelines inspecting for leaks. Using UAVs is much quicker and cheaper than using conventional ground methods.

A UAV’s camera can reveal close-up details of the substation’s steel without climbing the structure. Courtesy of Pickett.
NM Group processed raw as-built survey data created from UAV Riegl VUX-1 LiDAR data. Courtesy of NM Group.

They Are Here

The drones are not coming; they are here. What sounded like science fiction a few years ago is reality today. Thanks to the Section 333 exemption, utilities and companies that support them are deploying UAVs in ever-increasing numbers. With tens of thousands of miles of transmission and distribution lines that are inspected every year, the industry has much to gain as it switches to this virtual operations world. The benefits of using drones are hard to argue because they are cheaper, safer and faster than traditional methods of aerial inspection.

As NM Group’s Ferguson put it, “LiDAR-enabled UAVs are already a viable alternative and disruptive to ground-based survey for small project sizes of up to 10 to 15 miles. Manned aircraft remain more economically viable for larger projects. This tipping point will increase as BVLOS regulation and higher gross weight UAVs are introduced.”

Projects like Xcel Energy’s BVLOS in the Canadian River Breaks are pushing the envelope and proving that commercial BVLOS UAV applications are viable rather than avoided because of the permitting required. In the wings, developers are working on multifunctional UAVs, drones that are self-learning, micro UAVs and 3-D printed UAVs. The levels of autonomous UAV capability are growing. The only limitations are the imaginations of the users. If all the predictions are correct, there will not be a utility, independent power producer or maintenance contractor without a fleet of these nimble devices. There is a drone in your utility’s future, if you don’t have one already.

A UAV performs a detailed inspection of a structure with communications equipment in addition to the line inspection without requiring special traffic control on the highway. Courtesy of Analemma Resources.

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