UAS Pilot’s Job Just Got a Lot Easier with Aeriosense Software
Aeriosense is proud of its software that allows drones to autonomously inspect and photograph the power corridors and infrastructure of electric utilities.
Still, for a big project, even an intelligent drone is not enough. Someone has to plan the job, hire staff, ensure safety procedures are followed and basically take responsibility.
During Aeriosense’s inspection of lines in British Columbia’s southern interior last summer, that someone was Thomas Jimenez. He’s chief pilot and owner of Can-UAS, a drone services company in Squamish. Thanks to Aeriosense’s software, pilots like Jimenez don’t have to do much piloting. They don’t even have to program a flight plan.
“If I had to do any programming it wouldn’t work,” laughs Jimenez. “I’m not a programmer. The utility company provides some fundamental lidar data to Aeriosense about locations and what type of tower; a three pole or a metal lattice or whatever. Then, Aeriosense builds a flight plan. It’s a 3-D understanding of where these towers are located and the flight path around each tower.”
The pilot must make certain the drones don’t fly off or bump into anything. But the drones never did; even after inspecting more than 180 kilometres of transmission line and nearly one thousand structures in some of B.C.’s most remote areas.
“The software understands the towers as points in space and that the power lines have a sag,” says Jimenez. “The drone follows the sag of the cables and records the whole way. It’s almost as if you built rails in space that these drones fly on, and its riding these rails.”
The autonomous drones take video of the right-of-way so maintenance teams can determine if vegetation is getting too close to the lines and needs to be cleared. But more strikingly, the drones can be programmed to stop at points of interest around the towers themselves; automatically checking for signs of damage to the structure, the insulators, the guy wires, or anything the utility is interested in inspecting. And then they fly off to the next tower and do it all again.
“The drone is doing the flying, but the pilot is doing the photographing,” says Jimenez. “The drone basically stops only briefly so the pilot can take a picture.
The Aeriosense software running on his tablet allows Jimenez to see what the drone sees. And telemetry lets him know exactly where the drone is in all three axes. But that’s not quite good enough. Transport Canada still requires that drones be in sight of their operators at all times.
“With the naked eye it’s difficult for the pilot to maintain visual contact to the drone at 2.7 kilometers away. We have an observer and the drone has a strobe so you can see well,” says Jimenez.
Though the drone remains in sight, a pilot’s depth perception erodes even over a fairly short distance. But that’s not a problem for Jimenez since Aeriosense software ensures the drone always understands where it may — and may not — fly.
It Gives you confidence
“If I was manually trying to fly that, it would be almost impossible. You wouldn’t know what’s around you. You don’t know if you’re too close or too far away. You wouldn’t know if you were touching foliage. But flying within these predetermined ‘rails’ it gives you confidence. It’s not only really impressive, it’s the only way I can consider flying a drone two and a half kilometres away and knowing I’m not going to touch something.”
“That ‘twang’ is not a sound you want to hear,” says Mike Shelley.
Shelley is the Group Lead for Transmission Line Maintenance at Georgia Transmission Corporation in Tucker, Georgia. He’s used Aeriosense software for inspecting the utility’s power lines since 2017. In that time, he’s yet to have a drone hang up in a power line.
“There are companies that have tried to sell me drone inspections just by manually flying it and collecting data that way. But there’s a higher risk with that with the pilot load and the pilot getting tired at the end of the day. To do that day in and day out is just not feasible. I wouldn’t attempt to collect data without having automated flight.”
You feel comfortable letting the drone fly itself
“What keyed me into Aeriosense was we already had lidar data for all our facilities. So, what was presented to me was that the software could generate inspection patterns from our lidar models. That was an eyeopener. They could program patterns from the data set that we already had.”
Georgia Transmission also does inspections in the traditional ways: on foot, from a four-by-four, with foresters or from the air. But the utility sees a real future for the drones.
“I’m in a helicopter patrol for a week to three weeks out of out of the year,” says Ty King, the Area Supervisor for Georgia Transmission.
“Eventually this software will take me out of the helicopter and put it on a drone which is a lot safer. And this is where the industry is going. You feel comfortable with letting the drone go and fly itself around specific points around the structure. We have a lot of different types of structures on our system. We can configure your software to do the inspections and see the structures from any number of locations and angles.”
The software was everything I expected
“The software was everything I expected it to be, “says Shelley. “Pretty much all you had to do was push a few buttons and the aircraft would go wherever you want.”
Just as in Canada, the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority typically prohibits Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flying. If and when the regulations change or when waivers become more readily available, Aeriosense is ready. The only limit to the length of the inspection circuits then will be battery capacity. Thomas Jimenez expects utilities will see real efficiencies once BVLOS flying is allowed.
“In the current world of Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) it’s the best way you can inspect structures at a distance. I’m really impressed,” says Jimenez.
“I’m a drone operator who’s familiar with other software. You don’t need to be a software guru to make this work. And it’s not too hard for me to learn and bring into my quiver of tools.”
“It gives you the utmost confidence.”
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