A backlash and possible bankruptcy facing California utility Pacific Gas & Electric over deaths and damage in the wake of several wildfires illustrates in a worst case the importance of keeping on top of maintenance and vegetation management in utility operations.
Drones with their traditional imaging capabilities are being increasingly employed to support utility monitoring and maintenance, particularly of transmission lines and other infrastructure where human intervention is impractical or dangerous. Indeed, with their ability to carry bespoke payloads their potential is just starting to be tapped. Now New York Power Authority (NYPA) is opening up another use case with a plan to integrate LiDAR technology for vegetation monitoring alongside its transmission lines.
“The application of drones equipped with LiDAR technology will enable utilities like ours to conduct inspections with increased safety and improved efficiency,” says Gil C. Quiniones, NYPA president and CEO. “This project not only moves the industry forward, but also plays a critical role in NYPA’s progress toward becoming the nation’s first end‑to‑end digital utility by digitising inspection operations and collecting data with enhanced precision.”
Drone LiDAR use case
The one-year pilot initiative, which is being supported from the American Public Power Association’s energy and efficiency development programme, is aimed to determine the optimal combination of drone and LiDAR technology for use in utility industry inspections.
In order to comply with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ‘small drone’ requirements, the total weight of the drone with LiDAR equipment must be under 25kg.
Currently, NYPA’s vegetation management programme relies on contracting specialised companies with LiDAR‑equipped manned aircraft, with the inspection cycle for the entire transmission system repeated every four years. NYPA anticipates that drone operations will provide the opportunity to reduce the inspection cycle through improved responsiveness and shorter inspection times as well as to conduct more frequent or as‑needed inspections. Control and management of the inspection processes also should lead to cost savings as well as improved safety by eliminating the need to place workers near energised equipment.
NYPA owns and operates approximately one‑third of New York’s high‑voltage power lines and connect nearly 7,000MW megawatts of renewable energy to the state’s power grid.
Drones in the power sector
NYPA has various drone development activities on the go. In 2017 the company partnered with the Canadian utility Ontario Power Generation to inspect the Niagra ice boom between Lake Erie and the Niagara River in order to improve the detection and repair of damage to the boom.
NYPA also is collaborating with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) to evaluate the use of drones for inspection of transmission towers. Coupled with machine learning processes, it is envisaged that criteria can be developed to identify potential issues, like broken or cracked insulators, ice buildup on a tower or structural degradation.
The Energy Drone Coalition’s recent industry report based on a survey of more than 200 drone users and service providers in North America found that around two-thirds of the energy companies surveyed are currently operating drones. Half of the companies have set up drone operations in-house but for 60% the technology is still in proof-of-concept stage (i.e. less than 10 flights per month).
The survey also found that the sector is strongly focussed on maintenance and inspection applications but is keen to increase beyond visual line of sight research and development. Last year the FAA opened the way for such applications in the US, with Xcel Energy the first utility to be granted permissions. In Europe, regulations to support the enablement of drone flights over longer distances and a common drone services market are expected to be implemented during the current year.
Other core developments required by respondents to grow or scale their operations are endurance, range, reliability and a flexible utilisation.
In its outlook for 2019, Drone Industry Insights envisages the emergence of end-to-end hardware and software solutions from service providers, and these are expected to be a driver for commercial drone usage. The integration of artificial intelligence especially for data analysis also is expected to be a driving theme in the drone industry in 2019.