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Drones Start To Displace High Risk Worker Inspections In The Power Utility Sector

Worker safety starts with the introduction of physical barriers to avoid risk. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, can be considered a new development in this ‘barriers model’. Drones designed to perform inspections offer distinct advantages in terms of cost and safety over traditional methods such as workers using ropes, ladders, scaffolding, cherry pickers and even dangling from helicopters to examine key assets and infrastructure. It comes as no surprise that the energy industry with valuable assets such as high voltage transmission lines, distribution infrastructure, wind and solar farms are one of the first adopters of drone technology. Power utilities realise clear value and high return on investment (ROI) from the use of drones for asset inspection.

There are multiple usage scenarios for drones. Siemens has partnered with SkySpecs to deploy drone technology for conducting onshore and offshore wind turbine inspections, since the condition of the blades can be analysed four times faster and at half the cost as compared to traditional rope access technicians. CyberHawk reported strong growth of its UAV business targeted at the wind sector in 2016. The company has worked with 16 clients across UK, Ireland and Europe, including some big wind farm operators such as ENGIE and Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) and undertaken visual inspections for close to 1,700 offshore and onshore blades in 2016. Enertis, a Spanish engineering and consulting firm for renewable energy projects has been able to reduce solar panel inspection cost for one of its clients by 40% and has reduced survey time for a 75MW plant from a month to a week by using drones.

The inspection drones market will witness rapid growth and widespread adoption once regulations surrounding beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) evolve. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is considering regulations for BVLOS of UAVs although there is still plenty of work to do. For instance, Xcel Energy and FAA are working together on a “Partnership for Safety Plan,” wherein data collected by drones inspecting over 20,000 miles of Xcel Energy’s transmission lines in 10 states will be used to shape policies for BVLOS routine inspections of the electrical grid.