Infrastructure surrounds us, from the roads we travel to the poles and wires carrying electricity, to the data centers transporting information. Companies and government entities are positioned to spend up to 1 trillion dollars in the U.S. to address infrastructure repairs and needs of the near future. Along with those plans come an equally important challenge; system inspection and assessment of existing infrastructure. And it is that inspection game in the utility market that is changing rapidly with the arrival of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) platforms.
Not unlike many others, my first foray into drone flight was that of a hobbyist. Assembling home built kits, testing piloting parameters such as distance and wind speed all stemmed from personal interest. For many in the utility industry, the term “UAV” conjured up images of that weekend hobbiest or brought to mind the 2015 crash incident on the White House South Lawn, whereas the term “drone” was synonymous with the military-industrial complex. Given the strength of these mental references and the gulf between them, it was understandable that the initial reaction to use the technology within a utility context was one of surprise particularly as drones had experienced a meteoritic development over a very short three-year period. In that window of time, the technology application broadened from a military, heavy payload carrying, fixed wing aircraft to a smaller more nimble multi-rotor aircraft adapted by the film industry for hover capabilities and video stability and image capture. Collision avoidance sensors, autonomous operation, more clearly defined Federal Aviation Administration parameters and a host of cameras and visual detection components have now enabled a commercial utility industry to see the viability for drone inspection use as a business tool.
So what exactly is the utility value proposition for UAS/drone use?
Every company, no matter the business sector, looks for ways to streamline costs and increase productivity. The utility infrastructure landscape isn’t any different. From helicopter flights for electric line systems that are difficult to reach by ground transportation to physical sight “eyes on” inspection practices, both are being challenged by the speed, capability and accuracy of a drone program. For example, a trained worker can perform a series of inspection functions at the base of the pole capturing GPS coordinates, images, and measurement heights of the pole attachments including electric conductor and fiber communications. This time and resource heavy inspection activity is generally carried out by an employee physically walking pole to pole and manually capturing their observations. In comparison, a UAS outfitted with a LiDAR camera capable of capturing special imagery can perform this same function in a fraction of the time by measuring distances to objects from the given location at upwards of 30 thousand points a second and with greater accuracy. This time saving method can also deliver an accurate result including elevation information that can be used for future system design and tree trimming diagnostics for a forestry line clearing program.
The first time I learned how a 400-foot tall wind turbine has blades inspected I was surprised. An individual suspended by a rope and harness in the air scales the turbine blades to look for damage or blade pitting. This line of work is not for the faint of heart, but more importantly, what struck me was that aside from the height challenges, safety was a major concern. In our industry, safety is paramount and whenever a company is able to identify and provide an alternative methodology to doing the work that takes the risk of the employee’s physical safety out of the equation they should. The case for safety is not only a human one, but provides a cost benefit to the utility as well. Leveraging UAS technology in this area reduces costs by 90 percent and even mitigates risks related to employee trips, falls and sprains, public safety concerns related to post storm wire down inspections and general access to inaccessible areas of the utility footprint.
You do not have to be an expert in data acquisition to recognize the large amount of raw data that can be captured from a single flight operation. From location based GPS and sensor results to image and video capture in multiple formats, sorting through the data and retaining what is valuable can be a daunting task. One of the growth areas that play a role in analytics is machine learning for image analysis. Having a system in place that can tell an operator what to look for based on the data captured changes the scenario from an employee scanning images or video, to a system identifying abnormal conditions based on a defined set of parameters for review. It could be a utility pole leaning at an unsafe angle that needs replacement or a heat signature identified through a thermal camera showing a transformer near overload conditions. Leveraging technology removes the risk of human error and variability in the data captures; however, the risk of data paralysis remains a challenge that industry and academic institutions are only now beginning to tackle.
Where are we headed?
Much of UAV technology is still heavily regulated for commercial use and the ability to truly use a drone autonomously beyond visual line of sight of the pilot remains a chief hurdle to clear in the near future with the FAA. As those paths become more clearly defined, wide scale adoption will inevitably follow as will the value proposition. We are on the eve of full scale development and there remain a number of areas on which the utility and the IT community need to continue to focus on. Amongst them is data analytics, an area in which the IT industry can actively engage in by bringing forward new concepts, applications, and best practices to not only mitigate data paralysis, but strengthen the utility industry’s understanding of their systems and improve their decision making agility. From a process perspective, there is an opportunity for IT to also aid in connecting the puzzle pieces within the customer value stream—from deployment, through data collection, commodity delivery, and customer feedback. Lastly, many of the current applications of the UAS technology have been primarily to replace current utility methods and processes; however, there is significant opportunity to challenge the current utility mindset and to introduce new practices, applications, and value propositions not currently at play within the industry.