By Stephen Jewkes and Christoph Steitz
Flying robots that can travel dozens of kilometers without stopping could be the next big thing for power companies
Utilities in Europe are looking to long-distance drones to scour thousands of miles of grids for damage and leaks in an attempt to avoid network failures that cost them billions of dollars a year. However the technology faces major safety and regulatory hurdles that are clouding its future in the sector.
Snam and EDF’s network subsidiary RTE have tested prototypes of long-distance drones that fly at low altitudes over pipelines and power lines.
Italy’s Snam, Europe’s biggest gas utility, told Reuters it is trialing one of these machines – known as BVLOS drones because they fly ‘beyond the visual line of sight’ of operators – in the Apennine hills around Genoa. It hopes to have it scouting a 20 km stretch of pipeline soon.
France’s RTE has also tested a long-distance drone, which flew about 50 km inspecting transmission lines and sent back data that allowed technicians to virtually model a section of the grid. The company said it would invest 4.8 million euros ($5.6 million) on drone technology over the next two years.
At present, power companies largely use helicopters equipped with cameras to inspect their networks. They have also recently started occasionally using more basic drones that stay within sight of controllers and have a range of only about 500 meters.
However an industry-wide shift toward renewable energy, and the need to monitor the myriad extra connections needed to link solar and wind parks to grids, is forcing utilities to look at the advanced technology.
“It’s a real game changer,” Michal Mazur, partner at consultancy PwC, said of drones. “They’re 100 times faster than manual measurement, more accurate than helicopters and, with AI devices on board, could soon be able to fix problems.”
In-sight drones cost around 20,000 euros each and BVLOS ones will cost significantly more, according to executives at tech companies that make the machines for utilities, and a fleet of dozens if not hundreds would be needed to monitor a network.
Power grid companies are expected to spend over $13 billion a year on drones and robotics by 2026 globally, from about $2 billion now, according to Navigant Research.
But that is still dwarfed by the amount of money the sector loses every year because of network failures and forced shutdowns – about $170 billion, according to PwC.
The growing demand from utilities is coming at a time of swift technological advances in civilian long-distance drones. The prototypes, which are about a meter long and wide, not only have aircraft systems but can avoid obstacles, detect other flying objects – from helicopters to hang gliders – while mapping grids with thermal and infrared sensors.
However the future of these flying robots in the utility sector hinges on regulation.
BVLOS drone flights are largely prohibited because of safety concerns. However over the past year European watchdogs have for the first time granted special permits to allow utilities – namely RTE and Snam – to test prototypes.
The European Commission is working on new Europe-wide regulations to govern the use of civilian drones, including long-distance ones, but has disclosed few details.
A Commission source said the EU executive expected to put forward the rules by the end of the year, with a view to adoption in early 2019. The new regulations should make it simpler for companies that need to operate BVLOS drones to receive clearance, the source said.
“The objective is to speed up the opening of the drone services market,” the source added.
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