The potential benefits of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones, in utility operations are obvious: inspecting overhead conductor, pole-top equipment, or rights-of-way without sending a full crew and bucket truck; surveying storm-damaged areas without plowing through ice and mud; or scouting the integrity of power plant stacks and other towering structures.

With technological constraints and regulatory uncertainties slowing their takeoff, utility UAS use has languished. But thanks to a recently signed federal law allowing their use by utilities, rapid advances in range and data-handling capabilities, and the public’s becoming more comfortable with UAS presence, experts expect UAS deployments to soar.

So now is the time for co-op operations and engineering staffs to learn the ins and outs of UAS applications.

Those are among the conclusions reached by Charlie Toms and Joe Warren in Opportunities for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Use by Electric Utilities, a TechSurveillance report released in May 2016 by NRECA’s Business & Technology Strategies unit. The authors are consultants with Power System Engineering, a planning and design partner for co-ops and other utilities. Toms combines experience in communications system design and project management with 15 years of work in radio-controlled aircraft, while Warren is a 30-year utility communications veteran who holds private pilot certificates in the United States and Canada.

“The idea of getting a bird’s-eye view of distribution and transmission lines without deploying a crew is obviously attractive to utilities,” the authors write. “The use of a UAS to inspect lines, poles, and towers, or to collect ground coverage data, can be safer and more cost-effective in many cases than using traditional climbing methods. Plus, it can even replace some tasks currently done with costly fixed-wing or helicopter services, while supplementing and adding capabilities to on-foot or manual inspections.”

In late July, President Obama signed a bill that makes it easier for utilities to apply for a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) permit to operate a UAS. The new legislation, part of the budget authorization for the FAA, expands on earlier commercial-use regulations and gives special allowances to utilities.

Among the revisions is allowance for utilities to fly UAS beyond the line-of-sight and during nighttime hours while conducting maintenance and repair on critical infrastructure. They also eliminate the need for a pilot’s license to fly a UAS and allow systems to be flown up to 400 ft.

NRECA Senior Regulator Counsel Paul Breakman says the new ability to use UAS will be a great asset for cooperatives in terms of efficiency, safety, and system maintenance.

“It’s great to be able to make some progress, both through the FAA-revised regulations earlier this year and now through the recent legislation,” he says. “Drones will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our public safety and system-reliability efforts, and in natural disasters or security-related events, they’ll allow for a faster response.”

Speedy Development

Experts expect the favorable new law and growing public and commercial interest in the use of UAS will likely spur a rapid increase in utility-grade systems along with speedy development of devices like specialty cameras, infrared sensors, LIDAR, and other instruments specifically designed to be carried on UAS.

Range and flight times are important considerations for co-op engineering and operations departments weighing a UAS investment. Current battery-powered models carrying cameras or other inspection equipment can usually fly for 20 minutes or less before needing a recharge, although some existing utility-grade UAS can manage 50-minute flights.

Still on the drawing board: UAS that use “power-harvesting” technology, hanging from transmission lines to recharge or making their way to a power-charging home base inside a substation.

Data challenges also arise from the use of UAS for line and pole inspections. Flying a drone over a section of line will generate a great deal of data in the form of video, still shots, or LIDAR readings. Larger utilities, especially those with existing manned aerial inspection programs, probably already have developed procedures for storing, retrieving, and analyzing these masses of data, but others will need to create such procedures.

“Smaller utilities may not have the systems in place to support the large amounts of data that will be produced,” the authors warn. “One tip to help manage this issue is to take care when collecting the data. If the team shooting video or collecting data takes some time to properly label and store data as they work, it can save time and help make the data processing tasks go smoothly.”

Watch | Co-ops and system providers weigh in on how UAVs could help the utility industry