Green Ovations | Launching a Drone Inspection Program

This piece originally appeared in Electric Energy Online. You can find the original article here.

Findings by Navigant Research suggest that, globally, electric utilities are expected to spend over $13 billion a year on drones and robotics by 2026; that’s a dramatic rise from about $2 billion currently. This trend can also be seen in Google searches for “drone inspection,” which has increased 20 fold in terms of web search volume in a span of eight years, from 2011–2019. Within the same timeframe, the search volume for “drone pilots” increased by a whopping 557 percent. Drones are emerging as the next evolution in technological advancements in asset management. Whether you have a drone inspection program already, are considering implementing one, or if drones have not yet made their way up your list of priorities, there is no denying this is a trend you need to keep on your radar.

Where we are now — where we’re headed

Utilities have been slowly making headway into leveraging drones to help with inspections, though it has not been a transition that can be implemented on a whim. Technology has been improving steadily in terms of drone capabilities and reliability. Although regulations have not been fully fleshed out and still pose some challenges when operating in controlled airspace (e.g., flying new airdromes) and for flights beyond a few thousand feet (Beyond Visual Line of Sight, BVLOS), investing in drone inspection is proving successful for more electric utilities every year.

Electric grids are complex systems with 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 5.5 million miles of distribution lines in the United States. These lines all need regular inspection. For utilities wanting to make a first foray into establishing a drone inspection program, consideration needs to be given to these assets, dispersed over vast areas and with different access, safety and environmental challenges. However, even with these challenges, drone programs are demonstrating increasingly the benefits of drone inspection in allowing faster access, reduced safety risks and better inspection vantage points — leading to considerable return on investment.

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There are significant reductions in safety risk through drone inspection of overhead facilities. Drones keep inspectors/operators safely on the ground. The flights are held at a safe distance from energized conductors and supporting structures. Using drones, it is easier to analyze the influence of system conditions and make necessary improvements to increase asset reliability; drones may examine the condition of supporting structures, detect defective elements and reveal a range of deficiencies. Thermographic power line inspection can easily determine problems and defects otherwise hidden. The ability to reach hard-to-access structures is also a huge benefit of drone inspection.

Many utilities have been taking a crawl, walk, run approach and are experimenting by performing a few ad-hoc inspections with basic, off-the-shelf equipment. This is not exactly the case for trail blazers such as Xcel Energy, who in April 2018, became the first American utility to gain approval for BVLOS flights. The company estimates that flying drones beyond line of sight will eventually cost between $200 and $300 per mile, compared to helicopter flights that cost an average of $1,200 to $1,600 per mile. While cost?savings is a significant consideration, utilities need to have a realistic idea of the many factors involved in implementing drones before deciding on how much to invest in their program.

For utilities on the verge of deciding whether or not to launch their inspection program, and thinking about how to do it best, what are the next necessary steps?

Creating your road map: Understanding existing programs to effectively integrate drones

Boiling it down to the basics, utilities can consider running an internal drone program, bringing in external contractors, or adopting a hybrid approach. Regardless of the option, the first step is to consider the company’s roadmap going forward and to determine the vision and future goals of the inspection program. For many utilities starting a drone inspection program, it also requires a close look at the existing inspection methods and processes. Whether the current inspection processes rely on helicopter or foot patrol, the goal is to determine how a new drone inspection method can be integrated to supplement the current process. A useful decision tool is a cost model, which can help determine the current optimal approach, as well as a plan for the future, by examining the gaps and benefits of various inspection options and considering factors specific to your utility. This analysis will provide insights into how efficiencies and synergies can be achieved and could point to a phase-out of certain types of inspections.

Staffing and expertise are also critical to examine as utilities create their roadmap. Utilities will need to have some internal expertise in drone technology. This means deciding whether the company will build an internal department, or if it makes more sense to contract out all or parts of the process.

To kick-start a program, utilities should be aware that while the latest technology might produce greater efficiency, there is also a significant technology cost ramp-up if you decide to pursue the latest updates. It is important to find a middle ground, where you achieve an optimal level between personnel and technology costs.

As government and industry standards tighten, it is important to be aware of any knowledge gaps that might equate to hours of training needed. For many utilities that might currently lack the internal staff to launch a drone inspection program, having an RFP for contractors that can fill the expertise gap while building an internal department may be of great value.

When considering an internal or external approach, utilities will also need to decide whether they want to own their technology or not, and the cost of technology maintenance each decision entails. If the company is not ready to integrate drone technology in-house, it is important to consider how the contractor can best work with existing technology infrastructure and systems.

Consider the following different approaches of three North American utilities: One large utility company in the United States implemented a hybrid model: they decided to train a couple of pilots in-house to conduct ad-hoc inspections several dozen times a year. During the first year, the company worked with a contractor in addition to in-house pilots, and they are now set to scale up their routine inspections of their power grid. For this company, safety was a key draw to implementing drone inspection, with the goal to see a reduction in accidents.

A smaller utility in Canada, serving about 1.2 million customers, decided to use contractors to inspect a section of their power lines to start, with the possibility of having people trained internally on an ad?hoc basis in the future. This company received new data insights from a vantage point they couldn’t have accessed with their conventional methods of in-house inspection.

Another big player in the United States, serving 2.4 million electric customers, leveraged internal resources, and chose to perform routine drone inspections that accounted for 15 percent of their systems. Today they are thinking ahead to scaling this to 100 percent, with the creation of a drone department complete with pilot and managers. This company was able to see a 40 percent reduction in inspection costs.

How to begin

You have finished your prework and organizational alignment. Now what? If the answer is that you are not fully committed to building an internal inspection program, chances are you will be looking at external contractors, or at least a hybrid model. When bringing in external resources as part of your program, it is crucial to engage with contractors that have experience in and understand electric utility business. There have been many instances of poor project results because of that missing subject matter knowledge.

As in other aspects of business, the partnership between the utility and the contractor takes time to hit its full stride; there is learning for both. Be ready for some imperfect results in the beginning and plan your rollout accordingly. The utility must also realize that they will give up some control of the process to allow the contractor to leverage their expertise. The key is to set requirements and metrics diligently, so as to allow the contractor to provide you with excellent results over time.

The scope of the services should be clear on deliverables. Will the contractor only capture the inspection photos and data? Will this data be analyzed internally? Are there enough internal resources for that task or will this also need to be contracted out? If the deliverable involves inspection results, discuss upfront if your contractor has the ability to conduct the required analysis. How will the data make its way from the field to the office? Integration is worth considering as the program grows.

If the initial scope of the program includes only ad?hoc inspections (e.g., there is only a need for specific inspection once in a while, up to several times a year) and not necessarily routine inspections, working with internal staff is a good option. If there are fewer inspections per year, a small internal team may suffice. The downside to hiring external contractors in this situation is the effort required to get the right contractor in place, a process that involves properly scoping out the work, deliverables and all the due diligence.

Any type of drone inspection program, internal or external, requires proper documentation and data collection. A benefit of using drones is that they can greatly simplify reporting by integrating with your back-end databases and workflows, given an appropriate solution is chosen. It is important to consider how your solution will interface with the existing information technology structures to seamlessly handle condition assessment results and data.

Further considerations

Launching a drone inspection program to best fit inspection intervals, human resources allocation and technology capital is the first step. Once this process is started, consider some of the other important aspects of the program:

Preparing for BVLOS operations is another consideration. Although there is no regulation around the use of this technology yet, some utilities are starting to run research studies and pilots to test out inspections performed at a greater distance. Laying the groundwork for BVLOS operations means utilities will be ready when regulations are implemented.

Parting thoughts

Although each utility has its own unique situation and will need to develop a custom approach to inspections and asset management, learning from peers and industry partners can be incredibly valuable. Consider what path other organizations have taken that might be similar in terms of geography, size or philosophy to see what is applicable to your organization. One of the ways to engage with peers and industry is through organizations like CEATI or EPRI. Looking at what others are doing, even after developing your roadmap and vision, can be illuminating, offering perspectives you might not have considered.

This piece was written by our Founder and CEO Alex Babakov.

Alex Babakov received his bachelor’s in engineering physics from University of British Columbia and is a registered professional engineer in the Province of British Columbia. In the past 15 years, Babakov has been involved in the electrical utilities industry, working in the area of asset management, testing and condition assessment of transmission and distribution utility equipment. He has previously held positions at Powertech Labs, a subsidiary of BC Hydro, leading research and development of condition assessment techniques and tools for transmission and distribution equipment. Currently at Aeriosense Technologies, Babakov leads the integration of automated drone inspections into day to day infrastructure management. Babakov has authored and contributed to reports and articles for CEATI, CIGRE, and industry trade publications.

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Aeriosense — Drone Inspection Automation Software

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