How Drones Save Time and Reduce Hazards for Utility Workers
In the United States, the electricity grid includes hundreds of thousands of miles of high-voltage power lines and millions of miles of low-voltage power lines. Gas utilities are responsible for ensuring the safety of more than two million miles of underground natural gas pipeline. The U.S. also has thousands of utility-scale solar facilities and wind turbines that need inspections, while water utilities are responsible for thousands of miles of pipelines, tunnels and sewer lines, reservoirs and tanks, and treatment plants.
Whether pipeline, power line, turbine or tunnels, when utility inspectors make their rounds, they do what they can to fix problems on the spot. But when there are issues that need further inspection, they typically have to schedule a return visit to investigate further. More and more, drones are helping to speed up this process.
Scenario: a lineman sees a potential issue with an electrical pole. Equipped with a drone controller and the right ground control flight application on his handheld computer, he can quickly deploy a drone to get more detail on the problem. That way, the lineman will have all of the information needed to determine the best course of action, while saving time and avoiding potential hazards.
Drones (also called Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or UAS) have become increasingly popular as the FAA has gotten on board with the idea, and businesses have begun to understand the economic, safety, efficiency, and data collection possibilities. According to one recent report, the commercial drone market is expected to grow by nearly 20 percent through 2022.
The utility industry also has embraced drones for everything from better visibility and cost savings to increased safety and efficiency. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), for example, expects utilities to increasingly use drones over time to supplement manual processes, collect images and other sensor-related data, and improve data analysis and decision making.
Visibility and cost benefits of drones in the utility industry
Pinpointing potentially dangerous irregularities, leaks and other malfunctions is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive using on-the-ground methods, but much faster and more cost-effective with drones. That’s especially true with technology like infrared cameras and 3D mapping. With enhanced visibility, utilities also can augment often incomplete documentation and drawings, which helps teams better understand the state of existing infrastructure.
Safety is another important factor. Inspecting and repairing utility poles and sewers, for example, is dangerous work. The safety factor is even more critical in the event of natural disasters. Drones can be used to survey the damage remotely while keeping workers safe.
Remote visual inspections are clearly better with drones. According to a recent report, unmanned aerial systems can perform external visual inspections to the same level of detail as traditional inspections, with a lower risk to personnel and accomplished in less time.
Getting the most out of UAS
To get the most out of drone technology, utilities are pairing them with rugged tablets and other mobile devices. This combination allows operators to more accurately manage the drones and transmit critical data to handheld devices, where it can be analyzed quickly and uploaded. This data is critical in helping site managers troubleshoot and prioritize repairs.
That’s the route that SeekOps took. SeekOps, a sensor technology and aerial inspection company focused on the oil and gas industry, chose to pair its methane detection drone system with a Panasonic TOUGHPAD FZ-G1 tablet. Together, the platform helps utilities detect process emissions and gas leaks faster, more accurately, and more safely.
For utilities, the possibilities for drones is just beginning, and the industry is banking on them. The EPRI, for one, is a big fan. It has established a cross-sector initiative to promote the use of UAS technology for image processing, autonomous operations, confined space, indoor navigation, and advanced UAS payloads. The future is just a flight away.
To learn more about how SeekOps created a solution to detect leaks faster than traditional manual inspections using drone technology, read the full success story.