UAV Utility Lines

More than 2.7 million miles of utility lines criss-cross the United States, keeping the country turned on, charging, heating and cooling. Each inch of this network holds the potential to disrupt a society built on energy. A downed tree, a fraying wire, a failing tower—all of these things can take out power to thousands or even millions of people. Utilities keep these calamities at bay by regularly inspecting each mile of their lines, looking for overgrown trees, decaying wood poles, or metal towers carrying extra corrosion, among other things, that could indicate a failure in the making.

These inspections take great deals of manpower and money. And, because many utility inspections are done by visual inspection from the air on slow-moving helicopters, they pose a major safety hazard to the inspectors themselves. These costs and risks are being mitigated, however, by the tandem of software and nimble UAVs. At the forefront of this trend is a trio of companies—GeoDigital, Flōt Systems and Environmental Consultants Inc.—who have combined their category expertise to create a solution that will give utilities a safer, faster and cheaper way to inspect the backbone of their business.

Today’s methods of line inspection can be cumbersome. Utilities typically fly helicopters down the length of their lines at least two times a year—and as many as six times a year in high risk areas of old growth trees or earth that’s more prone to flooding or fire risk. Inside the helicopter rides a pilot and spotter. The spotter’s job is to note threats to the lines before they become true problems. Being only human, the spotter requires the helicopter to fly at a slow speed, only 30 m.p.h. or so, and a low altitude, about 100 feet.

That combination makes for dangerous travel, as helicopters are more stable at higher speeds and greater altitudes. If something goes wrong while flying so low, pilots usually don’t have the requisite space to make an adjustment and keep the helicopter in the air. Because of this, there have been more than 25 accidents and 43 fatalities related to helicopter-borne utility inspections since 1979.

A Flōt drone outfitted with cameras can record high resolution images throughout its entire flight which then becomes the input for software developed by GeoDigital, which pairs images with exact locations of surrounding terrain and vegetation. This suite of information can then be easily reviewed by experts at expert inspectors anywhere in the world – and this is where ECI comes in. One of the great advantages of this solution is that each possible trouble spot is easily reviewed again. Inside a helicopter, in real-time, a pilot may have to circle back and hover for minutes while his spotter reviews a potential problem, such as a broken cross-bar on a tower. An ECI expert performing a virtual inspection, however, can simply pull up the digital imagery and zoom in for a better look or share this with an asset or vegetation manager back at the utility.

The comprehensive set of data that results from a digitally-enabled inspection process can also minimize a utility’s liability. The digital inspection provides an important chain of evidence corroborating a utility’s methods of due diligence in maintaining their power lines to the regulatory standards. This level of documentation can aid a utility when fending off lawsuits such as the one filed against Xcel Energy following a 2011 wildfire in Texas. The lawsuit claimed the fire was set off by an Xcel Energy line that wasn’t properly maintained. In these kinds of cases, having a comprehensive record of visual data that affirms past inspections and the condition of the power line is the best piece of evidence available to a utility. Today, Xcel uses inspection technology and analytics software to better manage fire materials and in May 2015 received FAA approval to start using drones for infrastructure operations.

Performing digital line inspections also easily lends itself to creating an inclusive inspection quality control program. Thorough QC process are necessary because poor inspections often aren’t immediately revealed by disasters on the line. Some problems can persist for years before yielding a problem with transmission. When doing power line surveys from the air, the quality of an inspector’s work can only be reviewed by sending a supervisor in the helicopter with him, often impossible with two-passenger helis, or performing an extra flight. With virtual inspections, however, QC work can be easily handled by supervisors who simply view the same footage as their inspectors and compare their own observations with those made by their inspectors.

With the safety advantages in mind, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is putting policies in place that will allow utilities to use this technology at greater and greater distances and lengths of lines. Earlier in 2015, the Obama administration proposed new rules on how drones can be used by utilities and others in aiding this kind of work. Preliminary programs have been approved for several utilities, including San Diego Gas & Electric, Commonwealth Edison and Southern Co.

As this technology replaces old standards, full package solutions will move to the fore as utilities seek to incorporate these methods across large swaths of their territories without having to custom develop the solutions themselves. These solutions will require a honed set of standards and interfaces—something well within the combined expertise and efforts of GeoDigital, Flōt Systems and ECI.