For many utility industry observers, it’s not a matter of whether drones will be integrated into the operational landscape—it’s when.

The practical applications of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) go far beyond capturing a bird’s eye view of a co-op’s system. Add thermal imaging, GPS, LiDAR, and other sensors, and it becomes a transformative technology with deep implications for worker safety, system reliability, grid resilience, and co-op finances.

“In terms of interest level, I’d put UAVs in the top five,” says Brian Sloboda, a senior project manager in NRECA’s Business and Technology Strategies division. “I’ve given presentations on UAVs at half a dozen statewide engineering meetings, and they all want to learn more.”

However, there are hurdles to be cleared before this promising technology makes it into co-ops’ operations inventories. These obstacles range from helping to quell public concerns about safety and privacy to shaping the scope of eventual federal regulations on commercial drone use.

For its part, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which controls the nation’s airspace, released draft regulations on the issue in February and has okayed limited utility testing of drones. NRECA has submitted comments to the FAA explaining the need for rules that will help utilities improve system resiliency and reliability, but it could be 2016 or 2017 before a final rule is passed.

The proposed rules are fairly strict, including a weight limit of less than 55 lbs., visual-line-of-sight-only operations, daylight-only use, 100-mph maximum airspeed, 500-ft. maximum altitude, and aeronautical-knowledge testing for operators.

Early criticism of the proposal has focused on privacy concerns and the line-of-sight limits. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) has suggested requiring geo-fencing technology to control where UAVs are flown and modification of the line-of-sight rule.

On the line-of-sight restriction, Schumer wrote in a letter to the FAA, “It is hard to see how such a rule would not limit the legitimate use of drones in many commercial applications, including agriculture, mining, construction and infrastructure monitoring, land surveying and mapping, and delivering necessities to rural communities.”

NRECA Senior Regulatory Counsel Paul Breakman agrees.

“The FAA needs to step back and find a better balance between commercial use of UAVs and the protection of safety and privacy,” he says. “Our member systems work tirelessly to provide reliable distribution and transmission of power, and this reliability is created through redundancies and inspecting crucial lines. There is huge cost-saving and stronger grid-resiliency potential through the use of UAVs for electric cooperatives, but we are very concerned that the proposed rules are too limiting, particularly the line-of-sight restriction.”

Despite the go-slow approach of the FAA, the potential for UAV technology in a variety of industries is huge. And the technology, from battery life to payload capacity, is developing by leaps and bounds.

‘DRONES ON THE HORIZON’

In a study released in late 2013, Drones on the Horizon: Aerial Surveillance of Power Systems, the Cooperative Research Network (CRN), NRECA’s research arm, notes that the first U.S. patent for a utility drone idea was granted in 1989.

“The applicant envisioned a remotely controlled drone aircraft operating one or more remote sensing devices while it hovered above power lines looking for pitted and frayed conductors, cracked insulators, encroachment by trees and other risks to power reliability,” the report states. “It must have sounded very futuristic at the time.”

Twenty-six years later, U.S. utilities are just now seeing such a system come to fruition. Cass County Electric Cooperative in Fargo, N.D., is hoping to start drone testing this year in cooperation with North Dakota State University (NDSU), which already has a certificate of authorization from the FAA to conduct research.

“NDSU has extensive experience using unmanned aerial vehicles for agricultural research,” says Brad Schmidt, vice president of engineering at Cass County Electric. “Together, we believe that much of the same successes achieved using UAVs in agriculture can also be achieved within the utility industry.”

The research would test LiDAR sensors and digital cameras on their capacity to scan utility lines, poles, and pole-top structures for damage or deterioration. Three vehicles would be tested: the Aphex Hexacopter, Trimble’s UX5 Aerial Imaging Rover, and the fixed-wing E382 Long Range UAV.

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), an electric utility research consortium, has also completed some early testing, including a 2012 project to determine whether UAVs could be effectively used to assess storm damage on distribution systems by using live streaming video. Another test on distribution lines in 2013 looked at two rotary-wing UAVs, with payloads of video and other sensing equipment, weighing less than 55 lbs.

Over the past year, EPRI also tested UAVs on de-energized transmission lines in Canada, where authorization for such demonstrations is easier to obtain, according to Fabio Bologna, the institute’s overhead transmission program manager.

Bologna sees promise for UAVs to make it easier, cheaper, and safer to inspect utility assets.

“There is a lot of interest in line inspections using UAVs, particularly for transmission,” he says. “We wanted to know if there is an application for a UAV for a local structure inspection. Given that there is strict regulation beyond line-of-sight testing, we are focusing on local transmission structure inspection.”

Bologna says he hopes to test drones on energized high-voltage transmission lines soon. UAVs would have a clear safety and cost advantage over traditional helicopter inspections, he notes. But there are questions as to whether interference from high voltage lines could cause problems for the UAV.

“If there are any potential issues operating near high voltage, we want to demonstrate that and understand that because that may form part of the specifications utilities will need to give to vendors,” he says.

‘A MORE RELIABLE GRID’

Joseph Sowell, manager of member planning services for Georgia Transmission Corporation in Tucker, Ga., says there are several reasons he’d like to see UAVs replace visual inspection by helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft.

“Drones will be safer than helicopters, and you can’t put a price on that,” he says.

The FAA has okayed limited utility testing of drones. (Photo By: FLōT Systems)
The FAA has okayed limited utility testing of drones. (Photo By: FLōT Systems)

He can put a price on helicopter time, though, which usually runs around $15,000 per job.

“I anticipate scheduling UAVs will be easier as well, which may lead to slightly shorter lead times for capital projects,” he adds. “Maintenance inspection activities may increase due to lower costs and easier scheduling. And more inspections would lead to a more reliable grid.”

Chris Vallier, CEO of FLōT Systems, a Lafayette, Colo.-based firm pursuing affordable UAV solutions for utilities, sees real-time data collection as a primary benefit of the technology.

“There is a wide variety of useful applications for UAVs in the electric utility industry,” he says. “But we believe the real value is in the collection of condition-based data that can be disseminated in such a way to address real challenges for all electric utilities. UAVs can fly longer, more often and with less risk to humans than a helicopter. This enhancement results in more real-time, actionable data.”

In the next five years, Sowell predicts, most utilities will be using UAVs for some type of inspection activity. “We’ll be able to perform inspections on transmission towers and compression sleeves at a fraction of the cost,” he says. “Entry-level [UAV] packages exist today for about $3,500 for inspection and video activities.”

For Donald McDaniel, engineering supervisor at United Power in Brighton, Colo., the advantage UAVs offer is safe, quick inspections of hard-to-access distribution lines.

“When the technology is ready, I would like to perform inspections on lines in rugged terrain and on private rights-of-way,” he says. “This may consist of video with GPS, infrared, and LiDAR inspections. After major storms, we send one- and two-man teams out to inspect damage. Often the roads are difficult to impassable. The day may come when this work could be accomplished more safely and efficiently with drones.”

McDaniel says even pole attachment surveys could be a job suited to UAVs. “In the next 10 years, this may be everyday technology. In the meantime, there is definitely a need for research before anyone jumps in.”

‘EVOLVING ALMOST WEEKLY’

Terry Steege is an information systems engineer for High West Energy in Pine Bluffs, Wyo., where he is responsible for the co-op’s microwave network infrastructure and for managing its wide area network and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) programming. As a hobbyist, he is already building and testing tricopter and quadcopter UAVs with his son, Brandon.

Steege says he got his love of electronics and building new things from his dad, Martin, who was a lineman for High West Energy for 30 years. “The industry has changed so much since he was a lineman, but I have no doubt he would have been in the middle of helping to make this work for the crews if he were here. The biggest plus I see is the ability to speed up the location of faults during an outage. You may not be able to patrol a line in 3 feet of snow, but the UAV can.”

He is currently trying to develop a system that can handle the Wyoming wind. “I love programming the control board. You can get pretty detailed with the GPS software and the other accessories. I’m hoping to deploy sonic sensors for collision prevention and possibly to assist with landing; GPS for waypoints; infrared camera; stereoscopic camera; auto leveling sensors; on-screen display to show the heading; altitude; speed; orientation; and return-to-home location.”

Steege says the technology is evolving almost weekly. “I see batteries being the biggest hurdle, but that tech has doubled in just a couple of years. As more hobbyists develop the technology, the commercial applications will become more available at even lower costs.”

Finally, Steege says that although the technology is developing quickly and there are many legitimate uses, co-ops need to demonstrate the operational benefits of deploying unmanned aerial vehicles.

“First and foremost, public perception has to be positive, and you have to show this is another tool to help your co-op be more efficient.”

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