All You Need to Know About Power Line Inspections with the Use of Drones.jpg

All You Need to Know About Power Line Inspections with the Use of Drones

More and more utilities see the advantages of implementing drone technology in power line inspections. This guide gives you a brief introduction to the use of drones and aims to provide you with some insights to help you decide if drone technology is the right solution for your company.

1. Power Line Inspections Today

The importance of regular inspections and timely maintenance is crucial to reduce resource input, keep costs down, and restore electricity quickly. Today's methods, however, are suboptimal. Most power grid operators rely on a combination of on-the-ground staff and low-flying helicopters to inspect their power lines. There are several drawbacks with these methods: 

  • Slow outage management: Due to their size and weight, helicopters are far from optimal for carrying out power line inspections. Adverse weather conditions and operations in areas of narrow passage enhances these shortcomings. Helicopters operating without cameras require inspectors to physically climb masts to identify faults. Helicopters equipped with cameras still require a massive manual job to analyze photographs. 
  • Workforce safety hazards: Working in challenging terrain and weather conditions are two of the reasons why power grid operators face high risks. With 30 to 50 workers in every 100 000 killed on the job every year, according to T&D World, utility line work is one of the top ten most dangerous jobs in America. 
  • Disparate systems: It is not uncommon for utilities to use different systems throughout its inspection process. From planning to detailed ground crew work orders, data and information travels through a number of systems that are completely isolated. When the system portfolio is unsynchronized, it makes the analysis process unnecessarily cumbersome and time-consuming. Ideally, all the inspection process stages  should be integrated into a synchronized system. 

2. Data Management Challenges in Power Grid Operations

Data management is an area with endless options. To increase the efficiency of existing processes, you need continuous access to the power line inspection findings, for real-time data access and analysis. However, this level of flow and precision is not possible with today's manual processes. The current methods are more resource-consuming than necessary, which makes the gain far from optimal. Additionally, a substantial amount of potentially useful data is not utilized due to the lack of suitable software. This means you could be overlooking defects and specific problem diagnosis. 

Drones can be a valuable aid in power line inspection data management processes. By utilizing digital intelligence applications such as image recognition, drones can analyze 100 000 images in less than an hour. However, to fully harvest the potential of drones in power line inspections, integration and cooperation between all your operational systems are essential. Managing your data in a well-functioning, integrated system allows you to follow the complete power line inspection in real-time and communicate directly with the drone operators. 

What if I Don’t Use Photographs in My Inspections?

Utilities who does not use photographs as part of the power line inspection needs an alternative solution to track the locations of damage or upgrade needs. If you have printed photos from your power line inspections, modern data management systems let you enter these to create a valuable backlog.

Never underestimate the value of historical data. Tracking all your findings provides you with a complete overview. The right software system will organize your gathered data and keep track of your assets and components, making it easy to stay in control as well as predict potentially problematic events and situations in the future.

3. End-to-end Power Line Inspections

Several processes and tasks need to be completed from the initial planning stage of an inspection or maintenance operation. An end-to-end system combines artificial intelligence, sensors, UAVs, and data management systems to cover each step of the inspection process. This ensures a seamless communication through and between each stage, making the entire inspection process as efficient as possible. 

With an end-to-end power line inspection, you can watch an ecosystem of cooperation unfold. An automated system, which can be adjusted at any time based on your needs, selects what is useful among the enormous amount of gathered data. This creates a foundation which quickly lets you create a specific work order, telling the operators where to go and what to do. This will allow your operators to carry out the repairs and maintenance work in a more efficient matter, while also decreasing any safety hazards.

An end-to-end system will allow all participants, both internal and external, access to the information relevant to their part of the process, as well as an overview of the entirety. Consequently, everyone can micromanage their part of the process, while simultaneously keeping an overview of the entire operation.

The competence within your workforce is invaluable and should be a natural part of a cooperative end-to-end ecosystem. Even though automated processes are beneficial in power line inspections, manual checkpoints can be created and implemented when found suitable. With a well-integrated system as part of an end-to-end solution, you can access the vital, relevant information you need to create efficient work orders and enable far more efficient power line inspection processes.

4. Drone Technology: Meet the Intelligent Drones

Although the drone might seem like the most spectacular feature in a well-integrated end-to-end system for power line inspection, the drone itself is not the crown jewel. It is vital to note that the drone’s role as part of a complete end-to-end system merely is as an assistant to your ground crew. To utilize the drone as an effective operational tool, you also need a top-notch software for data gathering, analyzing and reporting. When these components are in place and able to communicate seamlessly, you will start seeing lower costs, safer work procedures, and, consequently, better overall results for your company.

It’s a Team Effort

Drones as an isolated feature will not revolutionize power grid operations. Drone Technology consists of several components that all need to interact to provide a robust end-to-end solution. Drones, sensors, artificial intelligence, and a cloud solution are all equally important factors to make up this equation.

Steve Jennings, PwC’s UK power and utility leader, enhances the importance of an end-to-end solution:

“Just owning drone equipment will not be a differentiator, however, it’s how utilities apply drones-captured image data in fields such as power plants, electrical substations or power lines and continue to innovate that will allow them to gain a competitive advantage.”

A drone becomes an intelligent drone when it works with a software system that can access and process relevant data. Eliminating irrelevant operational data is an essential function. When there is no time wasted analyzing redundant data, and you are quickly given access to the results you need, the entire process is more efficient than traditional manual inspection methods.

Read more: When it Comes to Power Line Inspections, Not All Drones are Created Equal

Send Drones to Inspect What You Cannot See

One of the most useful features of advanced drone technology is the possibility to entrust the drone with the inspection of power lines in areas that are difficult to access. Beyond Visual Line of Sight operations (BVLOS) allow the pilot to fly an unmanned aircraft through areas which are out of the pilot’s sight. Although this requires a higher qualified and more experienced pilot, as well as more advanced licenses and authorizations, it allows you to access areas that are difficult and risk-filled to inspect manually. A drone can navigate by instruments and is not reliant on perfect weather conditions to carry out its operation.

These drones will be programmed to recognize the topology of the power grid, and you will have the option of interfering and adjusting its instructions at any given time. With the unique combination of sensor technology, machine learning technology, and intelligent software, drones will be able to detect damages and maintenance needs in the same way an experienced power line inspector do today.

Drones can operate independently on pre-defined routes, and you will have the option to communicate with them in real-time, making it possible to adjust and change their instructions as you see fit, based on what they discover in your grid.

Following this, drones will produce a work order with the help of a fleet management system which guides the nearest available inspector to the correct spot, giving instructions on the task ahead as well as what equipment is needed.

5. Benefits of Drone Technology

Drone technology is a long-term investment that will be beneficial to your company in several business areas. Here are some of the benefits drones provide as part of an overarching and integrated end-to-end solution:

  • Drones are useful both in emergency situations and to keep up with regular maintenance needs
  • Drones save you the risk of sending workers into difficult and dangerous environments
  • Drones allow you to spend way less time and money completing each task involved in operating your power grids
  • Drones provide you with a complete overview of your inspected assets

You can read more about the benefits of drone technology in power line inspections in this blog article: Why Intelligent Drones Will Revolutionize Power Grid Operations

Intelligent Drones to Improve Emergency Preparedness

When hurricane Irma hit Jacksonville, Florida, in the fall of 2017, more than four million households and companies were left without electricity. Using drones to inspect and locate the damages Irma caused, local utilities restored power quickly and without any ground crew safety hazards. J. Geri Boyce, the spokeswoman for Jacksonville Electric Authority, said: "This has helped us not only with power restoration but also with the safety of our crews". 

In an emergency, time is of invaluable importance. With drones in your power line inspection toolbox, you can start your inspections immediately and identify, locate, and manage defects more efficiently. 

In 2016, the cost of downtime in Norway exceeded $117,000,000. More than $84,000,000 were caused by long-term power outages. Luckily, studies show that a majority of these situations can be predicted, which means the potential savings are enormous.

A drone will be far better equipped to handle the possibly challenging and dangerous environmental challenges in an emergency situation, which makes the safety risk for ground crew significantly lower than it is with today’s manual operations.

By using drones, you will find your level of emergency preparedness higher and the process to activate it significantly less complicated. The ability to predict downtime provides an opportunity to be proactive and create strategies to prevent the same situation from reoccurring.

6. Utility Experiences Using Drones

Drones are becoming a commonly used tool for efficiency in various business sectors and several utilities acknowledge drones as a cost-efficient and efficient assistant in power line inspections: 

  • General Electric, in collaboration with various utilities, used fixed-wing drones to inspect power lines in the US and abroad, cutting both inspection time and cost compared to traditional foot or helicopter inspections.
  • Oklahoma Gas & Electric recently deployed several multi-rotor inspection drones equipped with sensors and high-resolution cameras to inspect their assets and prepare for storm repairing. According to their spokeswoman, Kathleen O'Shea, "Drones have become a prominent topic of interest among utility providers in Oklahoma and across the country. They can be deployed faster than helicopters in most scenarios. We estimate that we shave off approximately a half day of assessment using drones".  

7. Regulations on Drones in Power Line Inspections

Operating unmanned aerial vehicles comes with responsibility and a list of legal requirements to ensure safe practice. Today, some utilities use drones illegally without even being aware of it. 

As drone technology development is going ahead at full speed, laws and regulations are constantly changing. Here's a brief overview of the main features in Norwegian, UK, and US regulations:

  • Norway requires two permits to operate commercial drones legally: an aerial photography permit from the The National Security Authority, and an RPAS license from the Norwegian CAA. To be granted the RPAS license, you have to present a manual on how you plan to operate.
  • Drone usage in the UK requires a Permission for Aerial Work (PfAW) from the CAA. Additionally, there is a set of rules detailing restrictions for operational distances. It is also recommended to seek permission from the landowner where you are operating. 
  • In the US, each state has its own regulations, but the small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) rules that came into effect on August 29, 2016, operates with less bureaucracy than its predecessor. There exist competence and certification requirements for the pilot operating the drone. Local authorities can provide state-specific information.

8. Drones in Power Line Inspections: How to Begin?

The scale of the areas utilities operate and the number of employees they have vary greatly. Consequently, the type and level of drone involvement in grid operations will differ. 

Different practical solutions are developed to meet the varying needs and requirements. Small companies with few employees may not require a complete field operational center. Instead, drone inspections carried out by a sole operator, steering the drone while carrying a backpack with all the technical equipment necessary to receive and analyze data from the drone overhead, may be more suitable. 

Another alternative is for two operators to drive a specifically constructed vehicle through the areas in need of inspection. While one operator drives the truck, the other flies the drone, follows it in real-time and gets access to visualized data and analytics on a user-friendly interface, allowing for easy utilization of the inspection results. 

No matter what level of drone or machine involvement your inspection processes operate with, manpower will never be eliminated entirely from the equation. Drone technology alone is not sufficient to revolutionize the way you do power line inspections. As with all new technology, it takes time to develop a well-functioning software system. The existing solutions have proved themselves as functional and efficient, already able to implement all the attributes needed to improve and increase the efficiency of your end-to-end process.

Communications and Stable Internet Access

When the first drones were developed and tested, limited access to a stable internet connection proved to be a massive challenge. You can still operate a drone with limited or without internet access, but the information cannot be transferred to the cloud for storage and processing. Today, system requirements regarding internet access are decreasing steadily, which also makes the use of drones more accessible to carry out operations in remote areas. 

Download for free:  Thundercloud: Unleashing the Power of End-to-End  Drone Operations in Power Line Inspections

9. The Cost of Drones

Knowing the global annual costs of energy network failures and forced shutdowns is estimated to $169bn, the need for efficient, time-saving and safe solutions is immediate. With the death rates of utility line workers in mind, the cost of this investment symbolizes more than the money spent.

A drone is generally a more affordable solution than a helicopter. It's easier to operate and leaves significantly less environmental footprints. An end-to-end solution can be implemented in various operating solutions for both small and large utilities. A single drone can be a significant contributor, and compared to the value it represents, the costs are not deterrent. 

10. Will Drones Revolutionize Power Grid Operations?

Two vital components are needed to revolutionize power grid operations: Drones or UAVs and a high-quality software system customized to your specific needs. Without a well-integrated software system that can gather big data and efficiently target relevant information, a drone is just a drone. 

eSmart Systems can now offer a product that provides you with everything you have just read about. We have already developed the software and the system is in place. Our comprehensive solution Thundercloud is a complete, well-integrated end-to-end system that will increase your efficiency, reduce the risk for your ground crew, and significantly reduce your operations costs.

The competence and input from utility companies have been essential in developing the best possible drone software system. Listening to experiences from the experts who know the reality drones will operate in has been of great importance. Their contributions with specific, detailed descriptions of actual and expected challenges and needs are crucial, as well as their feedback to the suggested solutions and actual test runs.

In developing this software, we have used actual footage from previous inspections. This has been critical to teach the artificial intelligence to recognize and detect damages, faults, and maintenance needs in the power lines and grids.

To learn more about what a complete tool for power line inspection looks like, please download our e-book “Thundercloud: Unleashing the Power of End-to-End Drone Operations in Power Line Inspections” by clicking on the button below.

Download for free:  Thundercloud: Unleashing the Power of End-to-End  Drone Operations in Power Line Inspections

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