Utility Industry: Few, if any other industry, have benefited more from drone technology than utilities, and one of the most important reasons is that, because so much of its work is hazardous, drones have minimized much of that danger.
Another important reason why public utilities have gained significantly by adopting drones is the sheer amount of distance that is required in inspecting and monitoring the numerous sectors of the utility industry, but which is easily and quickly addressed by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Drones eliminate much of the climbing involved in utility work and these flying robots can detect malfunctioning of most of the equipment far more quickly than a field crew. For instance, a lengthy segment of gas pipeline in Mexico was inspected successfully by a drone in an hour rather than the typical weeks using traditional methods. The inspection found a fissure possibly caused by seismic activity, along with other potential problems, which could have been deadly.
The less time any given project takes, the less likely it is that accidents will take place.
Is it any wonder that across the country, energy and utility companies are adopting and using drone technology not only to increase their business operations, but also in order to improve overall safety of their workforces. Many companies are also discussing the risks and rewards of implementing new safety technology on job sites since workplace fatalities in the transportation, warehousing, and utilities sectors comprise 17.3% of all U.S. workforce fatalities. Here are opportunities for drones to access difficult-to-reach or dangerous spots, and thereby reduce risk to workers.
The following are a few specific cases for drones to help keep utility-sector workers on the ground and otherwise out of danger.
Line and Tower Inspections. One of the routine parts of a utility job is site inspection—including power lines, cell towers, wind turbines, and hydroelectric dams. In the U.S. alone, there are 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 5.5 million miles of distribution lines that need periodic inspection.
By outfitting each lineworker’s truck with a small drone capable of flying quickly up and down a pole or tower capturing data and visual images, companies can speed inspections and eliminate the need for workers to climb to dangerous heights or get in and out of truck buckets. Various companies are using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to inspect cellular towers, deploying a workforce of mobile operators capable of systematically inspecting hundreds of thousands of towers annually, which greatly reduces the time people spend working at dangerous heights.
There are an estimated 2.4 million miles of underground natural gas pipeline across the country, and detection of pipeline leaks is increasingly being done by UAVs mounted with thermal imaging sensors.
The renewable energy sector has over 6,000 utility-scale solar facilities nationwide which require regular inspections. Drones can easily and accurately detect specific panels that are malfunctioning far more quickly than a crew on the ground. There are also about 52,000 utility-scale wind turbines operating in the U.S., and at least 800,000 turbine blades worldwide that need regular inspection. Drones eliminate much of the hazardous climbing associated with this work.
Water utility operations can span tens of thousands of acres of watershed lands which include the following:
- Sewer lines
- Treatment plants
Pipeline leak detection is now being done by drones mounted with thermal imaging sensors.
The wind energy industry is the fastest-growing source of power generation in the world. There are also about 52,000 utility-scale wind turbines operating in the U.S. and an estimated 800,000 turbine blades worldwide that need regular inspection. Drones are already being used to inspect wind turbines, which can be more than 800-feet tall at the blade tips, which allows workers to minimize time spent climbing structures, thus reducing accident risks. Here again, UAVs eliminate much of the dangerous climbing associated with this work in the past.
One of the ongoing projects in the energy and utility sectors is exploring ways unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) can enhance public safety while protecting the national grid and gas pipelines.
The drone industry is continually seeking to improve its technology for the purpose of giving better inspection data to effectively and efficiently monitor utility-scale systems, ensuring employee safety and improving reliability to better serve customers.
Because drones bring in cost, reliability in critical energy and water infrastructure, and safety and decreased business risk, it is time for drones to be more fully integrated into the daily operations of the energy and utility companies.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2015) cited from Seth Hutcherson, “25 Ways Drones Improve Efficiency and Risk for Utilities and Energy Companies” (January 2, 2018)