Can Helicopters be Replaced with Drones for Transmission Line Inspections?

I often get asked “what’s the difference between helicopter versus drone inspections” when it comes to transmission line inspections?

Before we breakdown the benefits of autonomous drone inspections, I would like to add that helicopters are crucial for the electric power industry and do have their place in inspecting and maintaining transmission lines. Many helicopter pilots and their crew risk their lives in ensuring that we have a reliable and dependable power grid.

A Sikorsky Skycrane installing a transmission pole. Image courtesy of PSEG flicker photostream.

However, drones can now provide better overall data at significantly lower costs with a higher safety margin depending on the required level of detail in the work scope. Also drone technology is specifically built for capturing data, where as helicopters are designed to transport people and cargo — capturing data is not it’s designed function and therefore it is less efficient. If one needs to perform an inspection, it is cheaper to put a camera in the air then the inspector. Before this was not an option and a helicopter had to be used.

Helicopter inspections are performed with mounted cameras and/or handheld cameras and binoculars while flying parallel to the lines at a safe, but far, standoff distance. A manual approach of data acquisition from a camera operator is more commonly used, which means the quality of images varies between operators and is often subject to turbulence, wind, and other external factors the camera operator is expected to work through. Even with the best cameras, capturing images from far away in a helicopter is extremely challenging.

Although helicopters can outpace drones, they’re unable to get as close and below the assets to capture the acute details that are often missed and necessary for a true and comprehensive detailed inspection. With drones, one gets a better perspective from both the air and from below the insulators as our automated software enables the drone to dip below the insulators within a few meters for another point of view that helicopters are unable to offer. In the end, this combination of perspectives and angels provides more consistent and detailed data which gives better insights and comprehensive condition assessment.

Data capture from a vantage point like this are not feasible using helicopters

Inspection cost is one of the biggest considerations for using drones when compared to helicopters depending on the types of inspections, work scope, and geography. Helicopters and its crews have a high hourly rate in the thousands of dollars per hour, which is most efficient for fast patrols when hundreds of circuit miles need to be covered in a day. On the other hand a drone and crew costs only thousands a day, which is more cost-efficient for conducting comprehensive detailed inspections and patrolling shorter lines for Veg. and ROW inspections.

A drone flying in between distribution lines

Safety is another consideration for using drones for both transmission and distribution line inspections on energized lines. A helicopter flight path near utility environments includes many industrial and crew safety concerns that must be mitigated to prevent fatalities in the event of a crash or contact with energized assets. Of course, the inherent size and weight of the drone allow for a higher safety margin when it comes to flying near infrastructure and most importantly near a populated area.

In summary, depending on the type of inspection needed drones can provide better data at a lower cost with a higher safety margin.

Please feel free to reach out to me to find out more about our drone inspection services and our autonomous drone software.

Visit our website for more information and case studies: www.aeriosense.com

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