An engineering firm used drones for transmission line construction planning, wildlife inventories and environmental compliance, reducing impacts on protected species in sensitive habitat—and the number of field workers needed for the project.
One of the world’s leading solar utilities uses drones to scope sites for new solar farms, cutting the cost of siting work while maximizing future energy output.
A 100-kilometer segment of gas pipeline in Mexico was inspected by a drone in an hour, work that would have taken weeks using traditional methods. The inspection found a fissure possibly caused by seismic activity, along with other potential problems.
These are just a few ways drones are transforming utility and energy operations. Aerial robots bring safety benefits to the inspection and maintenance side, where field forces face risks from trimming foliage near high-voltage equipment, climbing towers, assessing damage after natural disasters, and just driving remote roads.
They’re also revolutionizing site selection and environmental mitigation with survey-grade drone mapping software and aerial imaging. UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) can even pinpoint leaks in underground water pipelines and gas lines and find the source of outages on power lines.
Here are 25 ways drones are lowering worker and business risk and improving operational efficiency for energy companies and electric, gas, solar, water and wind utilities.
- Vegetation management inspections for T&D (transmission and distribution) lines and water pipeline rights-of-way
- Inspection of T&D lines for equipment wear, corrosion, leaning, sagging wires, broken insulators or stay wires and real-time looks during and after emergencies
- Survey-grade maps for siting transmission lines, pipelines, dams, solar farms and wind farms
- Construction site monitoring and reporting (counting numbers of rigs, documenting avoidance of endangered species set-aside areas)
- Line of sight analysis
- Interactive visual simulations, like transmission line tower heights, for stakeholder engagement
- Substation equipment inspections
- Gas pipeline inspections and leak detection
- Pinpointing malfunctioning solar panels
- Mapping ideal orientation of solar panels to maximize energy output
- Inspection of underwater intake pipes
- Leak detection in water pipelines
- Hydroelectric dam inspections, including fish ladders on older dam systems
- Aqueduct and canal inspections
- Reservoir monitoring, including water level trends related to climate change
- Landslide documentation
- Wind turbine preventive maintenance inspections
- Surveys and documentation of bird mortality at wind farms
- Discovery of damaged fencing or anti-climb guards from vandalism
- Monitoring for potential terrorist security threats
- Monitoring for criminal activity in remote areas (illegal drug labs/grows)
- Remediation site monitoring
- Coal stockpile volume calculation
- Inspections of ash ponds
- Smokestack inspections
Drone Use by Utilities: Tapping Huge Potential
Public utilities have much to gain by drone adoption. In the U.S. alone, there are 600,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 5.5 million miles of distribution lines that need periodic inspection. Manned aircraft for line inspections typically cost between $1,000 and $2,000 per hour, while drones can cost as little as $200 to $300 per hour to do the work while collecting even more data.
On the natural gas side, there are an estimated 2.4 million miles of underground natural gas pipeline across the country. Pipeline leak detection is now being done via drones mounted with thermal imaging sensors.
As for renewable energy, 6,000-plus utility-scale solar facilities nationwide require regular inspections. Drones can detect specific panels that are malfunctioning far more quickly than a field crew on foot. There are also some 52,000 utility-scale wind turbines operating in the U.S., and an estimated 800,000-plus turbine blades worldwide that need regular inspection. Drones eliminate much of the climbing associated with this work.
Water utility operations can span tens of thousands of acres of watershed lands; thousands of miles of pipelines, tunnels and sewer lines; reservoirs and tanks; and treatment plants. UAVs can measure soil temperature differences near leaking pipelines, rapidly pinpointing problems in remote areas. And aerial construction site monitoring helps with environmental compliance on large projects like dam replacements, avoiding stop-work claims that can cost a utility $100,000 a day.
Drone Software Provides Data, Safety, Efficiency
While drones tend to get most of the attention, it’s really the software that powers most of the operational advances. Drones are great at flying, but energy and utility companies are also investing in software to make sense of all those photographic, GIS, thermal, and infrared data gathered by sensors and cameras mounted on drones. Then there’s the management software, such as Skyward, that ensures efficiency and ROI, from flight planning and reporting to making sure the pilot flies safely in controlled airspace.
With the gains they bring in cost, reliability of critical energy and water infrastructure, safety and decreased business risk, the time when drones are a facet of everyday operations for energy and utility companies is now.
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