The Future of Drones in Utility Infrastructure Maintenance



In addition to powerlines, drones are being used to inspect other critical infrastructure in solar, wind, gas, oil, and communications as pictured here. Photo courtesy of Skydio.Largely used for powerline and substation inspection, drones have proved to be a powerful tool for electric utilities. PrecisionHawk, a North Carolina-based provider of geospatial data analytics services and tools, says other segments of the utility industry are also finding compelling use cases for drones.

“We’re starting to see a lot of growth in solar,” says Robert Henley, Vice President of Operational Excellence at PrecisionHawk. “We use drones to help monitor construction progress on new solar fields. We also do commissioning flights once a field is in play. We look at the cells with infrared cameras to see if any panels have any wiring errors or other failure modes.”

Oil and gas is an area that gives people like Henley a lot of excitement. “PrecisionHawk has contracts with multiple big players to conduct regular flights on their well pads looking for methane leaks,” Henley says. “We’ve already been doing this for four or five years, and I see the numbers only increasing as we go forward.”

Of course, electric utility infrastructure continues to be the primary application for drones, and there is still a lot of room for growth.

“Most power companies have gotten over their initial fear of having drones fly over their networks,” says Lee Corbin, Vice President of Customer & Business Development at Linebird, a manufacturer of tools and technologies to be used with drones. “Just a few years ago, a lot of power companies were actually looking at technologies and methods for keeping drones away. Now you’re seeing a bigger push toward using them. Many power companies, especially investor-owned utilities (IOUs), have even set up their own internal aviation departments. A lot of IOUs are now pushing their master service agreement partners to get their own drone programs up to a certain level with certain tools and capabilities.”

With much of that initial fear cast aside, what might the future look like for drones in the utility industry?

Utilizing technology to optimize efficiency is a broader trend that began taking shape in early 2023. Technologies like drones and AI can help the utility industry face big challenges head-on, such as aging infrastructure and an aging workforce.

“I believe we are on the cusp of a digital revolution in utilities,” says Christina Park, Senior Director of Energy Marketing at Skydio, a California-based drone manufacturer and provider of autonomous flight. “It is becoming more obvious that doing things ‘the way they’ve always been done’ will not be sustainable in the future.”

Better inspections

Inspecting infrastructure is still the most common way utilities are finding a use for drones. According to Henley, the capabilities continue to get better.

“On the routine inspection side, we’ve made a lot of headway over the past couple of years,” Henley says. The focus has been on providing more detail through higher-fidelity images. And now that some utilities have been using drones for several years, there is a richer data set to base decisions on.

“Now we’re starting to get into things like predictive analytics,” Henley says. “We’re also starting to look at vegetation growth patterns to make more strategic decisions as to what exactly needs to be cut, and when. There are just a lot of things we’re able to do now that we’re getting year-over-year inspection data.”

The year-over-year data includes those high-fidelity images mentioned earlier, as well as more advanced imagery such as photogrammetry and infrared; photogrammetry extracts 3D information from photographs, whereas infrared imagery helps detect things like heat and leaks.

Analytics is key to the decision-making. A drone flying several miles of powerline might end up taking hundreds of photos. It can be time-consuming for a person to go through all of them. Well-designed software with powerful algorithms can help zero in on those photos containing discrepancies that would suggest some sort of defect. PrecisionHawk is now taking the concept of AI and machine learning a step further

“We’re putting the AI algorithms on the iPads we’re using to fly the drones,” Henley explains. “That gives the pilot real-time AI updates as a drone flies a line. This is happening today. The end goal is to ultimately put those AI algorithms right on the drone. That way the drone will only take pictures of what the AI recognizes as a discrepancy.”

Another piece of this is communications protocol. LTE connectivity is limited in some of the more remote areas powerlines and other utility infrastructure need to be inspected. That’s why PrecisionHawk has been working with IBM and Citrix to figure out how to establish mesh networks. “We use the infrastructure of the electric utility to set up the mesh network, which can help provide constant connectivity and enable real-time reporting,” Henley says.

Another recent advancement for PrecisionHawk is that it has merged with Norwegian geo-tech company Field. The two companies' proprietary software and inspection technology using AI and machine learning offer a revolutionary new inspection and analytics solution to utilities in the U.S.

“Field builds their drones and integrates their own sensors into the packages,” Henley says. “Field also has real-time analytics tools. As a drone is flying, it is capturing lidar data and feeding it up into the cloud. Gaining this additional capability is really exciting for us at PrecisionHawk.”

Using drones to actually perform tasks

Linebird drone The Linebird Osprey NPS with Aerial Ohm-meter allows pilots to use a drone to perform voltage and current measurements on powerline splices. Linebird is now developing other drone tools to help cut wire and tree branches and remove osprey (hawk) nests from powerlines. Photo courtesy of Linebird.Linebird is helping utility companies go beyond just capturing imagery with their drones. Linebird’s Osprey NPS (nonconductive payload system) attaches to a drone, and various tools can then be attached to the NPS. This allows a drone to perform a variety of tasks on and around powerlines. For example, Linebird’s Aerial Ohm-meter performs voltage and current measurements on powerline splices. PrecisionHawk is one company that has begun using it.

Linebird now has additional tools in development. A wire cutter is expected to be available in Q3-2023. This tool can provide a significant advantage during a power outage where a tree limb or ice took down a line. A service technician can fly a drone to the point of incursion, and cut the line to the ground where it can be rebuilt. “The technician could even put the fuses in,” Corbin points out. “Now everybody on that line is back in power — without having to wait for a tree crew to show up.”

Speaking of trees, another new Linebird tool is a vegetation cutter that will be ready in late 2023. It’s capable of trimming branches up to 2 inches in diameter. Having that capability can save a lot of time and cost because a tree company doesn’t have to be called in for small jobs.

Another new tool in development is an osprey nest removal tool; osprey as in the actual hawk. Ospreys like to build nests wherever they can, including power poles. This new tool enables a drone to go up and pull those nests down during the off-season while they are uninhabited. This is a big benefit to a utility company because these nests can cause problems with powerlines, and the ospreys tend to return to their existing nests year after year. Trying to climb poles and remove these nests during a four- to five-month window is a tough proposition. Flying a drone with a nest removal tool makes that task much safer and more achievable.

AI, autonomy, and accelerating adoption

For drone adoption to continue growing in the utility industry, Skydio’s Park believes technological advances need to make drones as useful as possible, but also as easy to use as possible. One hurdle utility companies face is making sure their people can fly drones. That can be a hurdle for some utility workers, too.

“Linepersons, operators, and other staff are often inundated with more tasks than they can complete daily,” Park says. “The thought of becoming an expert pilot, especially around energized or sensitive areas, can be daunting.”

One alternative a utility company has is hiring a company like PrecisionHawk to fly missions for them. And then there are companies like Skydio that provide drones that don’t even require an expert pilot, thanks to innovative technologies such as obstacle avoidance.

“Our drones can be preprogrammed with missions to inspect assets such as towers, poles, substations, or indoor facilities,” Park explains. “The human is there to get a closer look at certain angles as needed, based on what the initial inspections produce. But our drones can fly autonomously, even in energized environments like substations. Because Skydio’s products are impervious to electromagnetic interference, they can fly missions to get a comprehensive close-up view of critical energized assets.”

Additionally, Skydio Dock and Remote Operations allow a human to oversee flight missions from their office or home. A drone can be programmed to fly its mission in the same way a person might program their sprinklers to water their lawn.

“It’s not about eliminating today’s drone pilots,” Park says in reference to AI and autonomous operation. “Rather, it’s about letting those same pilots manage massive fleets of drones and deliver exponential value to their organizations.”

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