Drones in utilities and energy sectors
Not all readers will remember August 14, 2003, but 50 million people living in Northeast America probably do. This was the date of the worst power outage on the North American continent ever recorded – it left those 50 million literally in the dark. This is why power companies spend millions of dollars to fly helicopters to survey the power lines in hopes of finding out what exactly went wrong and in seeking new ways of meeting grid reliability standards.
They use a variety of sensing technologies in addition to visual inspections, too. Thermal imaging cameras and radar sensors are used extensively to spot thermal and physical issues w/ wirelines.
In the 2003 blackout event, upon discovery, they found that three high voltage transmission lines in Ohio had leaned onto some trees causing the massive blackout.
This is where the demand for lidar usage in the power industry first came to light.
LIDAR is an innovative technology that reflects light creating a 3-D image that can be analyzed from any environment. LIDAR is effective at letting power company representatives know if there are any nearby encroachments and about loading on their lines.
Though LIDAR technology is still being used today and other applications are being improved upon to save time and money, most companies are sticking to old-fashioned helicopters as their primary source of retrieving the data.
Duke energy hopes to make the change in the near future. Their North Carolina office understands that helicopters are not the fastest nor the cheapest way to get their LIDAR research information.
They are very interested in exploring how drones could make this process more cost efficient and faster.
Drones sometimes come with an ominous stigma, since most people only think of them being used by the government in war tactics. This is no longer the case and gradually people are warming up to the idea of drones being used in a variety of industries.
Directors want drones to make movies, realtors want them to take pictures of million dollar estates, farmers want them to survey their crop fields, vendors want them to deliver their products, and now the power sector is catching on.
From companies that specialize in oil, gas, nuclear, and renewable energy, each division could profit by using unmanned aerial vehicle technology.Sadly, even though these companies see the need in having drones in the workplace, it is not yet legal to use them.
The Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for making the laws that pertain to drone users and they have been working for a long time to come up with the right language that may make drones more accessible to the private sector.
The Federal Aviation Administration does grant exemptions in special cases. Power company associates are hoping to qualify for such an exemption since drones could make America’s infrastructure safer and more reliable.
With so much profitability over the drones uses being expressed to the FAA, many questions why they are not more lenient. After all, drones could save millions of dollars, make equipment inspections less hazardous, and respond faster in emergency situations.
The problem is even though some citizens are very much in favor of the private use of drones, others are coming to the FAA with some legitimate concerns.
General complaints include the possibility of property or bodily damage if a drone were to crash. This is a rare but real possibility even in the hands of an experienced pilot.
Citizens also fear privacy violations of being recorded against their will. While this is unsettling, this already happens on an almost daily basis. Most stores have surveillance cameras, traffic lights now have cameras, as well smart devices.
So what reasons are energy companies giving the FAA for wanting to make drones available in their industry?
Duke energy thinks drones could be useful in investigating power fluctuations at their solar site, as well surveillance at their switchyards and substations. This would provide the company with real-time security and functionality footage.
These are just on-site applications of drone usage and they have so far not been approved for an exemption. Since drones usage hasn’t been legalized on their own property, it is less likely that FAA will allow drones to map transmission lines on public property at this time.
While power companies would love to able to use drone technology to service their company and customers in the near future, they don’t expect it to happen anytime soon.
Delays in the Federal Aviation Administration making laws along with skeptical citizens lead them to believe it will be some time before the power industry will be able to legally benefit from many applicable drone uses.
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