Drones Coming For Utility Network Monitoring

San Diego Gas & Electric and Commonwealth Edison have been authorized to fly drones for remote network inspections.
Published: Tue 14 Apr 2015

Along with the smart grid the way is opening for remote monitoring and even deployment of assets in the power sector using drones and robots. [Engerati-Robots Coming To Deploy Microgrids]

California utility San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) has been pioneering the use of drones – or technically ‘unmanned aircraft systems’ or ‘unmanned aerial systems’ (UASs) – for aerial network inspections. Last July the company became the first utility in the US to gain Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval to test this technology in a sparsely populated airspace in Eastern San Diego County. Now SDG&E has been granted FAA approval to use these systems throughout its service territory – the second utility to do so following a similar approval to Commonwealth Edison last month.

“The utility industry is rapidly changing and this new FAA approval is another milestone that will improve the way SDG&E conducts its operations,” said John Sowers, SDG&E’s vice president of electric distribution operations. “The new technology will enable us to improve response times to emergency situations, inspect our electric and gas facilities in remote areas that are otherwise difficult to access, reduce the use of manned helicopters, enhance overall employee and public safety, and locate the cause of power outages faster.”

Improving network situational awareness

SDG&E plans to use drones in several situations which provide a variety of key benefits. In addition to locating the cause of power outages, they should improve situational awareness during emergencies through monitoring of fires. They should also achieve cost savings, noise reductions and environmental protection by reducing the use of helicopters and other heavy machinery.

Measuring 41cm (16 inches) in diameter and weighing less than a 0.5kg (1lb), these small devices use a camera to inspect utility equipment and relay live images back to the controller. The UAS can access infrastructure that is difficult to reach for utility crews and alert them if repairs are needed.

In order to maintain reliability, SDG&E needs to inspect approximately 42,000km (26,000 miles) of transmission and distribution power lines for safety and compliance purposes and to ensure the grid is continuously running smoothly and effectively.

ComEd trials drones

Initially ComEd, in a project with the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), will be trialling the use of drones for remote inspection of its transmission and distribution lines as well as substations. Additionally, the company envisages using the technology following significant storms to assess damage.

“We are continually looking for innovative technology to improve reliability and our customers’ experience,” said Terence R. Donnelly, executive vice-president and COO of ComEd. “Right now, we use helicopters to inspect transmission lines. This initial test will help us evaluate potential benefits of using UAS technology to supplement this work.”

IIT will initially provide a licensed pilot for the partnership and is evaluating a light, flexible cage around the UAS that may maximize battery usage and protect the device.

ComEd also envisages in the future mounting an infrared camera on the drone to identify hot spots on the lines.

Drones for utilities

The idea of using drones in the power sector isn’t new in the US. As far back as 2000 the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) demonstrated the use of rotary wing UASs for powerline inspections. Subsequent tests using later generations of drones undertaken in 2012 and 2013 have continued to demonstrate their effectiveness in the utility sector, both at high altitudes of 1,500-2,100m (5,000-7,000 feet) as well as under 30m (100 feet).

Proposed new rules issued by the FAA in February are expected to open the way for more widespread use of small drones in the US by power utilities, among other commercial applications. Under the new rules, which are currently open to public comment, operators would need to obtain a certificate, and the drones would be limited to daytime use. Their use also would be restricted to altitudes below 150m (500 feet) and speeds less than 160km/h (100mph).

Other potential applications of drones in the power sector include inspecting for defects in wind turbines, malfunctioning solar PV panels and leaks in oil and gas pipelines. They could also be used for digital asset mapping.

Further reading

FAA Opens the Door for Drone Use by Utilities and Energy Companies