Power to The Drones: Utilities Place Bets on Robots

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Yet without any clear guidance as to how the new rules will look, or will work in practice, many companies have adopted a wait-and-see approach

The situation is mirrored in the United States.

As in Europe, special permits are needed for BVLOS flights but the aviation regulator, the FAA, is looking to simplify and speed the process of winning such waivers, including by automating it.

Xcel Energy in April became the first American utility to gain approval for BVLOS flights.

 

A drone is used to survey high-voltage power lines in Wilnsdorf
A drone is used to survey high-voltage power lines of electric company Westnetz near Wilnsdorf, Germany, July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski

 

ULC Robotics, which provides technology for the energy sector, said a growing number of U.S. utilities were looking at the technology.

“While only a handful of beyond visual line of sight flights have been granted in the utility space, we believe developments in long-range flight are going to advance within the next two to three years,” said business development manager Tom Barracca.

 

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It is still early days for drones in the utility sector, which is known for its slow pace of change.

Companies have only started using in-sight drones over about the past two years. While their short range limits them to specific tasks, such as inspecting a known problem, utilities say they are more efficient at that than helicopter surveys.

 

 

 

“You are not only saving time but also money,” said Sven Bender, key account manager at Innogy, Germany’s second-largest energy group by market value, adding that the use of drones in the industry would pick up further in the coming years.

The company’s Westnetz grid unit has a handful of in-sight drones, which can stay in the air for as long as 30 minutes, to inspect parts of its 182,000 km of power lines in Germany.

France’s RTE said it avoids 1,400 days of interruption of high-voltage lines each year because it uses drones alongside its helicopters.

 

A worker maintains a drone which is used to survey high-voltage power lines of electric company Westnetz near Wilnsdorf
A worker maintains a drone which is used to survey high-voltage power lines of electric company Westnetz near Wilnsdorf, Germany, July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski

 

Out-of-sight droning is set to be the next frontier for grid operators with their miles of pipes and pylons to inspect.

Most energy infrastructure players manage assets scattered over large areas, located often in hard-to-reach places like mountains or deserts.

As the industry gradually moves from large conventional power plants to smaller, more fragmented green energy sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels, it also increases the number of assets and connections that need to be maintained.

 

A worker maintains a drone which is used to survey high-voltage power lines of electric company Westnetz near Wilnsdorf
A worker maintains a drone which is used to survey high-voltage power lines of electric company Westnetz near Wilnsdorf, Germany, July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski

 

A drone flying along a gas grid can detect methane leakage, while along a power line it can do a lidar survey to map the lines, the health of the cable and the vegetation on either side.

“We’ve identified that it can save as much as $180 for every mile of data capture when compared with traditional methods,” said Michael Chasen, CEO of drone maker PrecisionHawk.

It was a tree too close to high tension power lines at the Italian-Swiss border that led to Italy’s most extensive blackout in 2003 triggering a chain reaction across the grid experts say could have been averted with drone technology.

 

Workers operate a drone to survey high-voltage power lines of electric company Westnetz near Wilnsdorf
Workers operate a drone to survey high-voltage power lines of electric company Westnetz near Wilnsdorf, Germany, July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski

 

Thomas Nicholls, chief marketing officer at French drone company Delair, said power groups in France and Italy were most advanced with regard to the technology. He added that safety played a major role because inspecting power lines could be a hazardous job for humans.

Dor Abuhasira, CEO of Israel’s Percepto, which supplies drones to utilities such as Europe’s biggest group Enel , sees the technology as ultimately providing a kind of private satellite service to grid operators.

“We are their Google Maps with a few high-tech bells and whistles on top.”

 

(Editing by Pravin Char)

 

A drone to survey high-voltage power lines of electric company Westnetz is pictured near Wilnsdorf
A drone to survey high-voltage power lines of electric company Westnetz is pictured near Wilnsdorf, Germany, July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski
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