For utilities, drone flights can be used for vegetation and asset inspections. Specifically, long-distance (or beyond-visual-line-of-sight, BVLOS) drones, equipped with technology such as cameras and LiDAR, will eventually be utilities’ first line of defense when it comes to maintenance inspections, complementing helicopters and ground inspection crews to cut costs, quickly identify potential problems and keep everyone safer.

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Here are several ways that drones can help protect the power grid.

1. Detect maintenance needs more precisely

Drones are now able to carry the same LiDAR technology also used by helicopters, letting utilities more quickly capture millions of data points to map out miles and miles of power lines. Utilities can make field inspections more efficient by using cutting-edge automated analysis of the millions of data points collected by drones, only deploying crews to areas where the software identifies risks.

High resolution images can reveal the smallest risks in the grid components, such as small cracks in insulator blades or loose cotter pins. Thermal imaging and ultraviolet inspections automatically detect and pinpoint the exact locations of poor connections, corroded conductors and corona discharge. Hyperspectral imaging and LiDAR allow utilities to form complete 3D maps of adjacent vegetation, classify vegetation species, forecast their growth and identify all potential risks. This information allows utilities to focus their maintenance budgets where it matters most, and prioritize the actions necessary to mitigate those risks and thus avert power outages and other disasters.

2. Big data allows automated, timely inspections

Drone inspections combined with LiDAR technology and automated analysis software gather millions of data points that can then be fully analyzed for threats to the grid, such as trees that are at risk of falling on power lines and vegetation growing too close to the lines and poles. These data sets can be securely stored in a cloud ecosystem and quickly analyzed right after collection. Utilities can then leverage this information to address issues without delay and plan their field work focusing on the most important ones.

Also, performing these inspections on a regular basis results in indexed datasets that utilities can use to easily compare the status of a specific asset in different moments in time. This can be a tremendous help in assessing deterioration and gives a clear action plan for maintenance and restoration tasks.

3. Predict future risks to the grid

Not only can drone inspections help utilities identify current risks and problems, but they can also forecast future vegetation threats. Using Sharper Shape software, each tree is recognized as an individual object and classified by height, species and proximity to the power lines. This information can then be plugged into an algorithm that determines how fast that tree will grow in the future and at what point in time it would be considered at risk for falling or growing into the lines. Each time the drone is flown over that same stretch of power line, the growth algorithm becomes more accurate. This kind of data can be used by utilities to develop precise timelines and budgets for vegetation management, as well as to mitigate liability risks.

Similarly, the asset condition information recorded at regular intervals provides engineers with the right data to estimate the future degradation to the power lines. With this information in hand, utilities can repair or change out the components of the grid before they cause a problem.

4. Respond to disaster rapidly

While drones can help with the routine maintenance needs of utilities, they also have a place in disaster response and damage assessment of utilities. Drones can be quickly deployed in the event of natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes and fires, in order for utilities to get a sense of the damage to utility infrastructure, potential hazards such as blocked roads and unsafe bridges, and where repairs are needed most. This allows utilities to dispatch the right number of ground crews to the right places, with the correct equipment and knowledge to make the necessary repairs and stay safe while doing so. These drone disaster inspections also allow utilities to promptly and accurately communicate to the community when power will be restored.

Utility drone inspections are ready for takeoff in the United States, with Sharper Shape leading the charge. As the first to do commercial power line inspections in Europe, Sharper Shape is using its experience to demonstrate exactly how much this innovative technology can help utilities save, how it can make inspections safer and more efficient and, finally, how it can result in even more reliable service across the power grid.

This year, the utility industry will benefit from all of the progress that has been made in drone technology via government regulations and technical advances. Whether it’s routine maintenance of utility assets or disaster response, the accessibility of drone inspections will help utilities keep the power on.

Tero Heinonen
CEO, Sharper Shape