Power Grid Failure

Can Drones Save a Damaged Network?
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27 January 2022

If you were to take all U.S. transmission and distribution lines and put them end to end, you would have enough material to stretch around the circumference of our planet 280 times.

What adds to the difficulty of keeping these lengthy lines working is their impressive age. A substantial portion of these vital components are decades old – and as is the case with any piece of old machinery or equipment, without regular testing or inspection, sooner or later they are doomed to fail.

Last year, it seemed that because of the above – and with the help of global warming’s devastating hand – we saw the chickens come home to roost.

High heat, droughts and winds are a major cause for utilities to properly maintain their lines and transmission structures. For example, in the western states of the U.S. there is an abundance of forestry and deep canyons – this means that making sure transmission towers and power lines there are properly maintained and cleared of vegetation as failure to do so can quickly result in wildfires.

By late 2021, more than 6,500 fires had been recorded in California, burning over 1,161,027 acres (405,000 hectares) across the state – with Colorado, Idaho and Montana also suffering from unprecedented levels of the same fate.

Equally devastating was the Texas power crisis from February of the same year that led to shortages of food, water and heat to more than 4.5 million homes.

It was later revealed the power grid failure could not be blamed solely on the impactful winter storms, but also on the lack of a fit-for-purpose utility service – something that consistent standardized inspection protocols would have quickly identified.

But where do drones come into all this? Read our blog to find out.

Working at a Higher Level: Catching Problems Before They Arise

Traditionally, utilities have deployed teams of ground crews and helicopters to inspect and repair transmission structures, lines and associated equipment. These inspection methods are time-intensive, limited in their capabilities and often dangerous; requiring line workers to perform their jobs at height.

For the most part, utilities are still reactive, responding to maintenance issues as problems arise or customers report concerns. This is no longer acceptable. Fortunately, rapid advances in unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, along with digital image capturing software and cloud storage, make it possible to be proactive and identify maintenance needs safely before they cause problems related to power grid failure.

While drone-based inspections are relatively new to the utility industry, they are proving to be a critical asset in utilities' outage and fire mitigation programs. By quickly inspecting conductor clamps, insulator fittings, split pins and other integral infrastructure components for defects, repairs can be prioritized and carried out quickly. With digital eyes in the sky, pilots can see other hazards such as encroaching vegetation, dangerous campfires and other issues that pose threats to people and avoid power grid failure.

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The Right Pilot is Crucial

While the argument for widespread adoption of drone-based inspections in utilities is a compelling one, it comes with a caveat - it only works with the right pilot flying the drone.

Some utilities have their own in-house drone programs and others utilize professional visual data solution providers. Because visual site inspection using UAS is a relatively new field, many of the drone-based visual data capture companies are small and use freelance pilots. The pilots in those instances typically have obtained training for the FAA's Small UAS Rule (known as Part 107) test implemented in 2016.

This was a simplification of previous FAA requirements that had not yet evolved to specifically address drones. Current training courses to prepare students for this written theory test certification can range from 2-hour online programs costing as little as $50 to 4-year university aviation degree programs.

While FAA Part 107 is the baseline certification necessary to commercially operate a drone, it is only a theory test and its requirements do not begin to encompass the specific skills needed to meet exacting standards.

The best-of-breed use employees instead of contracted labor to ensure professionalism, sharing of lessons learned, team building and evolving skill sets specific to client needs. These pilots undergo comprehensive testing that evaluate a pilot's skill level on risk mitigation, target identification, digital geographic information systems and communication skills. Once this evaluation is complete, pilots move on to practice working on utility assets to ensure proficiency.

Some utilities have implemented their own drone pilot testing to ensure competence. One of the nation's largest utilities requires pilots to undergo a 50-point practical test performed on a live asset that includes conducting flight and risk assessments, a team debriefing, communication of safety factors from possible interference, battery status, and other details.

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Data is King

While on the outset, drones are cool technology, it's the capture and handling of the mass amounts of critical data that can make or break the success of drone-based inspections. The proper management of terabytes of data is key to managing network assets and is central to how operational teams can manage inspections, maintenance, safety, and compliance. It's not uncommon for drone pilots to capture 100,000 images per day that must be reviewed, encrypted and submitted to the utility for analysis.

"When I was first introduced to our data held on Cyberhawk's cloud-based visualization platform, iHawk, I could not believe the quality of data we were able to obtain at the touch of a button, from any location. It is unrivaled compared to other data management tools I have seen being used in the energy sector," said the Head of Operations and Maintenance for a major utility in Scotland.

The visualization software provides actionable insights and unprecedented levels of access to terabytes of multi-level data. By having visual data at their fingertips, utility operation and maintenance teams can instantly gain a comprehensive visual understanding of their transmission and distribution grids.

The in-depth visual and thermal analyses expose integrity risks and reveal potential opportunities for improvement. This significantly reduces safety risk, downtime, environmental impact and costs due to the inspection speed and by removing the need for linemen to work at height, near live lines or in generally hazardous areas.

Ready for Take-off

While drone technology being used in this particular commercial setting is a relatively new venture, it is not unproven and certainly not too early to adopt when the consequences of inaction remain so stark.

With 2022 is still in its infancy, we nary need a reminder of the horrors that 2021 brought, as the deadly cocktail of unkempt power lines and wild weather showed us again and again and again last year.

The onus now is with stakeholders at major utility providers to be the sea change that the industry so sorely needs and act upon the piling evidence that climbs higher with every passing year. It is up to them to choose the proactive method of inspection that is quicker, cheaper and, most importantly, lifesaving.

Interested in learning how we can support your project?

Download your free power grid capabilities overview pack now!