Increasingly, energy companies are relying on unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) (commonly known as drones) to carry out the often-dangerous work of inspecting power lines, transmission towers and even wind turbines. [Drones Coming For Utility Network Monitoring]
These devices have the potential to make the work of linemen safer, more efficient and less expensive, according to the US Electric Power Research Institute.
Utilities can end up spending millions of dollars inspecting power lines, which are often in hard-to-reach places. According to the US utility Consumers Energy, it spends several hundred thousand dollars a year to send people out in the field to do mapping and measuring of its electrical system. A drone equipped with sensor technology can collect the same data and more at a small fraction of the cost and time.
Andrew Bordine, a Consumers Energy executive, says: “With wind turbines, you’ll have a couple of guys hanging off the blades by a rope a couple hundred feet in the air to do inspections visually, at a cost upwards of $10,000 per site. We can get the same results with a UAV for $300, without putting workers in danger.”
Other industries, including oil and gas drillers, pipeline operators, construction companies, and agriculture are also investigating the use of drones to make inspection and mapping tasks faster, more accurate, safer and less costly.
New guidance to support drone potential
UK-based classification society Lloyd’s Register acknowledges that drones enable rapid, safe and repeatable inspections for offshore, shipping and onshore infrastructure that will offer long-term benefits to the energy and marine sectors, delivering high levels of integrity, compliance and commercial advantage.
As a way to improve productivity, reduce risk exposure and in-service inspection costs, as well as speed up survey times, Lloyd’s Register has published new guidance notes to support the safe and effective deployment of next-generation drones and unmanned aircraft systems inspections.
The guidance notes are aimed at providing a consistent approach to risk in UAS and drone deployment, offering practical operational considerations relating to:
1.Regulations-a UAS Operator must adhere to all applicable national regulatory requirements as specified by relevant governmental bodies and aviation authorities. Where no applicable national or international regulatory requirements apply, it is recommended that a UAS Operator follow and implement best practice adopted by leading aviation authorities (e.g. CAA CAP 722).
2.Considerations for use-a number of benefits are listed in this section.
3. Personnel-specifically highlighting competency to perform and maintain the services for which UAS operations are intended.)
4. Quality- if a UAS operator has not obtained ISO 9001 accreditation, it is recommended that the UAS Operator follows equivalent quality management system processes and controls.
5. Safety-an organisational risk assessment and management process (including a risk register) should be implemented and maintained for all UAS operations.
6. Hardware and software-the notes recommend a list of minimum criteria for the selection of a UAS device.
7. Operations-the notes recommend that prior to any UAS operations, the UAS operator should submit a plan of activities to the asset owner or shipowner’s representatives and in accordance with any established procedures relevant to the flight area.
A more detailed description for each section can be read by downloading the link below.
According to Lloyd’s Register chief technology officer, Nial McCollam. He adds: “Technology and innovation in the area of digital data, sensing technologies, unmanned systems and robotics are here to stay. We see an exciting and important journey ahead and anticipate our efforts to increase and continue.”
The guidance notes will be updated regularly to provide industry with the latest practical information on issues such as how best to use drones for inspection in confined spaces, which is highly relevant in energy and marine applications where Class surveys are needed, and which also improves safety for human life.
Uncovering the full potential of drones
Chris Chung, Head of Strategic Research Projects at Lloyd's Register, believes that in addition to staff safety and cost and time effectiveness, the drone will have even more to offer in the future, especially when it comes to emergency situations. A UAS has a fundamental part to play in emergency response and improving situational awareness.
He explains: "A major challenge in any emergency situation is the lack of timely and accurate information on which to base informed decisions. In such instances, an UAS can be used to gather data without sending in personnel, or at least limiting their risk exposure."
“Drones will one day have the ability to autonomously follow a predefined flight path, enabling higher measurement accuracy and repetition of collecting more relevant data and operational defects while inspecting and data-gathering in real-time.”
Drones-currently a ‘nice to have’
The drone offers a number of significant benefits like being able to capture detailed data, but it is unable to carry out repairs. Field workers would still need to go out and fix the problem. Alternatively in the future such activities may be able to be carried out by robots. For example we wrote recently how robots are being developed to deploy microgrids [ [Engerati-Robots Coming To Deploy Microgrids].
In addition, the drone relies on experts to operate the kit, guide it to the right locations/suspect areas and identify further inspection requirements.
Furthermore, whilst UAS inspection provides opportunities for economies when viewed as an end-to-end process, the upfront investment (of purchasing a drone and relevant monitoring devices) can be greater than with a traditional inspection.
Lloyd’s Register Project Manager Helen West says that operators are often put off by the initial financial layout but she explains that this should be carefully evaluated against the costs of a traditional inspection, as well as the safety of personnel. “Whilst this is likely to vary between applications, it has been our experience that most operators continue to opt for UAS inspection. However, in the current climate it is scrutinised as not essential for some tasks and a ‘nice to have’.”
As the drone sector becomes more competitive, prices will come down, making it a more attractive investment. In addition to this, competition often breeds innovation which will eventually turn a ‘nice to have’ technology into a ‘must have’ investment.
However, as the numbers of drones increase, especially in private hands, users are likely to be faced with increasingly stringent requirements from national aviation authorities. Following voluntary guidance such as that from Lloyd’s Register will go a long way to demonstrating responsible use of drones in the energy sector.