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How can drones benefit the electric power industry?

David Willems, VP business development and strategy for UMS Skeldar takes a look at how unmanned aerial vehicles (drones to you and me) could be advantageous in the electric power industry.

The electric power industry, covering the generation, transmission, distribution and sale of electric power to industry and the general public, is a highly complex area. Asset management, environmental compliance and safety must all be addressed and guaranteed. 

For example, many organisations have invested heavily in deploying reliable and economical electric power infrastructure across both countries and continents, due to it being an essential element of all developed economies globally. Due to its importance, electric power infrastructure must be routinely inspected to not only ensure its structural integrity for continuing safe operations, but also to monitor for intruders who might want to cause damage.

Traditionally, inspections have been completed by deploying teams of personnel in vehicles such as helicopters. However, these types of examinations often entail high risk situations and very lengthy journeys requiring each team member to spend a long time in the field. In addition, they can be very expensive, with some organisations explaining power line inspections can cost upwards of $4,000 per flight hour.

The electric power industry is therefore in need of alternatives to the traditional manned helicopter inspection approach. Over the last decade, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have come to the fore as one such alternative. This is the result of three main benefits that UAVs offer over manned operations: reduced costs, improved safety and enhanced communication.

What UAVs offer the electric power industry

Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) rotary UAVs enable electric power industry operatives to maintain surveillance as well as check the status of the condition of hard-to-reach infrastructure, whether underground or across borders. Inspecting and maintaining this critical infrastructure can be a perilous task: many are in extremely harsh environments and can involve complicated procedures to ensure everything is working correctly. 

By capitalising on their endurance (many UAVs can fly for more than five hours), using UAVs in these environments means it is possible to access remote areas with relative ease, with the added benefit that a manned crew will not be exposed to any associated hazards. This removes risk to employee safety and consequently reduces medical expenses and lost work due to injury. 

As well as the associated dangers, the inaccessible locations of many electric power lines and infrastructure also present a challenge in gathering and sharing data. Having manned crews run inspections and repairs means a delay between data recording and analysis. A further disadvantage is that people can become fatigued, therefore possibly missing potential hazards in the field. 

In contrast, using UAVs means data can be shared via the cloud in real-time to crews in another location, totally separate from the inspection itself. UAVs can also monitor significant areas with no loss of concentration. 

Not only do UAVs gather information more efficiently than humans, the digital data enables operatives to make better decisions based on timely accurate data. Once a potential hazard has been identified, it can be addressed in a far shorter time than the manned alternative. This helps to identify issues earlier and reduce downtime, which is vital for organisations in charge of safeguarding critical infrastructure. 

Today, the electrical power industry is beginning to deploy UAVs as they move towards non-conventional sources to monitor increasingly challenging environments. This is due to the requirement to ensure round-the-clock vigilance, a priority in any strategic asset protection plan. 

Overall, the key benefits of UAVs include:
  • Provide a quick overview and evaluation of difficult to reach areas;
  • Prevent maintenance planning and optimised production keeping costs low;
  • Access locations that pose health, safety and environmental risk to personnel;
  • Real-time data transmission;
  • Fast on-site deployment of UAV platforms;
  • Authorised and qualified UAV inspection personnel;
  • Reduced downtime increases overall efficiency.

 

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