Where are the Drones?
By Jim Vess
When I first posted about the use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs), more commonly known as drones, about a year ago, the technology had experienced just limited use. At the time, only ComEd and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) had received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to use UASs in a very limited capacity – mostly limited to the inspection of inspect transmission and distribution lines and substations.
Today, along with ComEd and SDG&E, more utilities are putting UASs to good use. The list of over two dozen electric utilities includes Consolidated Edison of New York, Consumers Energy, FirstEnergy, Florida Power & Light, New York State Electric and Gas Corporation, PPL Electric Utilities, and Southern Company. Utilities are looking toward UASs to reduce costs, improve safety, and increase reliability and response times across their transmission and distribution (T&D) systems.
Traditionally, T&D utilities and operators have used line crews, manned aircraft – such as helicopters, and third-party inspection services companies to perform line inspections and maintenance, vegetation management, and to assess line damage from storms. Working on T&D systems in this manner is cost-intensive, difficult, and can be very dangerous.
UASs are not just limited to powerline work either. For example, FirstEnergy has been using drones for expansion joint inspections at its electric generation facilities. What used to take almost an entire day to assemble temporary scaffolding and then have engineers climb up as high as 100 feet to inspect the joints, can now be done in a matter of minutes.
While UASs offer significant cost advantages in many cases, manned aircraft will still make economic sense in some instances. For example, a helicopter would be more efficient for inspecting a 200-mile long transmission line. This is mainly because the FAA currently requires UAS operations to be conducted within line of sight.
As it stands now, FAA regulations on the commercial use of UASs are very limiting. Currently, commercial operations require a Section 333 exemption. The exemption has restrictions that specify a FAA-registered UAV must fly below 400 feet and within line of sight, have a pilot and observer with a minimum sport pilot license, and be 5 miles from an airport.
At the beginning of the last century, automobiles were the new technology and very restrictive rules were enacted to cope with their use on public roads. In Colorado, it was the law the that when an automobile driver came upon riders on horseback on the road he was required to pull off the road, turn off the car, and cover it with a tarp until the horses had passed and were well down the road. As the auto evolved, so did the regulations. The same can be said for UASs, as the technology evolves and they become more commonplace, the rules regarding their use will evolve and become less restrictive.
The next step is to allow the use of UASs beyond the line of sight of the pilot.
UAS technology has forever changed how utilities approach T&D inspections, maintenance and operations. As the technology advanced, the possible uses of drones will increase, helping to minimize costs and maximize efficiency of utility operations. The UAS is here to stay and pretty soon we’ll be able to take the tarp off of them.