At the back end of last year I wrote about an interesting new trial to test the use of drones by utility companies to inspect and maintain their networks. A number of American utilities have been applying for FAA approval to use drones to replace the time-intensive and dangerous task of monitoring their network.
“When you look at the amount of information we can gain to make accurate decisions about our systems, and look at the cost and time savings, this is a huge opportunity for us,” said Andrew Bordine, a Consumers Energy executive.
The safety is a major element of this shift, with statistics revealing that 17 utility workers lost their lives in accidents related to network maintenance last year.
Leading the way
At the forefront of this shift is drone company Sharper Shape. The company, which originated in Finland, recently secured a multi-million dollar funding round to aid its expansion into the US market.
One of the main areas the company is working in is to ensure trees don’t fall onto power lines. Whilst it sounds rather low tech, it’s a problem that causes utility companies to spend around $6-8 billion a year to inspect both lines and neighbouring trees to ensure mishaps don’t occur.
When I spoke to CEO Tero Heinonen recently, he told me that using drones to perform this task rather than humans can cut those costs by around 30%. Not only is it more cost effective though, it’s also considerably faster, with daily assessments possible as opposed to the weekly or even monthly assessments that are currently the case.
The drones utlize LiDAR technology to map millions of trees in the vicinity of utility lines, with the map logging a range of factors, including the dimensions of the tree, its species and the proximity of it to the power line.
The company then provides analytics to help network managers make sense of the millions of images that are returned by the drones. This automated analysis provides managers with a prioritized list of issues that need addressing right away, versus those that can be put off a bit longer.
The company was the first to provide such commercial power line inspections in Europe, and hopes to expand similarly in the US.
Eventually, it’s expected that drones will take on the bulk of inspection work, especially as the number of tasks the drone can perform increase with developments in sensor technology. For instance, they can already inspect for things such as corrosion and insulator degradation, but it’s possible for this portfolio to be expanded in time.
It seems a trend that is only likely to accelerate, and it’s likely that Sharper Shape will play a leading role in that move. You can learn a bit more about their platform via the video below.