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Drone Impact! The Journey from Backyard Hobby to Utility Industry Adoption
By Andrew Bordine, Ex-Executive Director - Grid Infrastructure, Consumers Energy
This time saving method can also deliver an accurate result including elevation information that can be used for future system design and tree trimming diagnostics for a forestry line clearing program. Safety: The first time I learned how a 400- foot tall wind turbine has blades inspected I was surprised. An individual suspended by a rope and harness in the air scales the turbine blades to look for damage or blade pitting. This line of work is not for the faint of heart, but more importantly, what struck me was that aside from the height challenges, safety was a major concern. In our industry, safety is paramount and whenever a company is able to identify and provide an alternative methodology to doing the work that takes the risk of the employee’s physical safety out of the equation they should. The case for safety is not only a human one, but provides a cost benefit to the utility as well. Leveraging UAS technology in this area reduces costs by 90 percent and even mitigates risks related to employee trips, falls and sprains, public safety concerns related to post storm wire down inspections and general access to inaccessible areas of the utility footprint. Data Analytics: You do not have to be an expert in data acquisition to recognize the large amount of raw data that can be captured from a single flight operation. From location based GPS and sensor results to image and video capture in multiple formats, sorting through the data and retaining what is valuable can be a daunting task. One of the growth areas that play a role in analytics is machine learning for image analysis. Having a system in place that can tell an operator what to look for based on the data captured changes the scenario from an employee scanning images or video, to a system identifying abnormal conditions based on a defined set of parameters for review. It could be a utility pole leaning at an unsafe angle that needs replacement or a heat signature identified through a thermal camera showing a transformer near overload conditions. Leveraging technology removes the risk of human error and variability in the data captures; however, the risk of data paralysis remains a challenge that industry and academic institutions are only now beginning to tackle. Where are we headed? Much of UAV technology is still heavily regulated for commercial use and the ability to truly use a drone autonomously beyond visual line of sight of the pilot remains a chief hurdle to clear in the near future with the FAA. As those paths become more clearly defined, wide scale adoption will inevitably follow as will the value proposition. We are on the eve of full scale development and there remain a number of areas on which the utility and the IT community need to continue to focus on. Amongst them is data analytics, an area in which the IT industry can actively engage in by bringing forward new concepts, applications, and best practices to not only mitigate data paralysis, but strengthen the utility industry’s understanding of their systems and improve their decision making agility. From a process perspective, there is an opportunity for IT to also aid in connecting the puzzle pieces within the customer value stream— from deployment, through data collection, commodity delivery, and customer feedback. Lastly, many of the current applications of the UAS technology have been primarily to replace current utility methods and processes; however, there is significant opportunity to challenge the current utility mindset and to introduce new practices, applications, and value propositions not currently at play within the industry.