By - Jim Vess

Utilities Testing Drones to Improve Grid Reliability


By Jim Vess

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allows for some commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS’s), or drones, but only with express permission, which it started granting last year, mainly to Hollywood film companies and crop surveyors. Now utilities are starting to get into the act.

ComEd recently gained approval from the FAA to use drones to inspect its power lines and substations. Previously, the FAA had granted San Diego Gas & Electric an experimental certificate to use drones for research, testing and training flights in sparsely populated airspace in Eastern San Diego County (Update: As of April 1, 2015, the FAA has authorized SDG&E to use their drones for inspections of its electric and gas facilities, including emergency response damage assessments throughout its service territory), but ComEd is the first utility in the nation to receive approval to use drones as part of its ongoing operations.

The UAS’s will be used on a trial basis to inspect transmission and distribution lines and substations, as well as to assess power system damage after storms. The camera-equipped drones, which can provide video and still photos, will fly above power lines and substations to allow an in-depth look at the condition of the system. The utility anticipates future drones will include an infrared camera to identify hot spots on power lines.

The trial project is a partnership with Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). IIT will provide a licensed pilot for the project.

“It’s exciting to be working with ComEd to study robots in real-world conditions. From a research perspective, this will allow us to learn more about how robots perform in unstructured, outdoor environments,” Matthew Spenko, Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at IIT said in a ComEd press release.

Drones offer advantages over traditional manned helicopters for power line inspections. They are less expensive to own and operate, run quieter, and have a smaller environmental impact. These small aircraft – often weighing just a few pounds or less – can access areas that are difficult to reach for utility crews, alerting them if repairs are necessary. This ability for drones to get into places where ground crews and helicopters cannot safely translates into a more reliable grid as damage can be assessed and repairs can be made before an actual outage occurs.

Utilities are also investigating the use of robots to inspect complex underground spaces. The robot would be deployed ahead of workers going into high risk underground spaces. Initially, the robots would be used to monitor conditions before workers enter the space. As robotic technology advances, they could be used for routine maintenance tasks.

“The use of emerging technologies like UAS’s and other robotic technologies is an important factor in ensuring the continued resilience of the power grid,” said Terence R. Donnelly, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of ComEd in a company press release. “We are continuing to seek out innovative technologies that will bring improved benefits to our customers.”

Advancements in robotics are being made everyday. As utilities begin to embrace these new innovations and put them to use, work crews will be safer and the grid will be more reliable. That’s just good business sense and to the benefit of everyone.

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