You’ve probably heard how drones can provide highly skilled combat support to a war zone, hover above a celebrity wedding ceremony to nab top-secret photos, and even deliver packages to your doorstep, as companies such as Amazon have promised to do. Now the high-tech flying devices are about to start competing with utility workers to perform some of their job duties — providing a safer, more efficient and less expensive alternative.
Illinois-based electricity firm Commonwealth Edison has announced plans to begin sending in drones to inspect power lines. The first utility in the U.S. to receive permission from the Federal Aviation Authority to do so, the company has been considering the devices since a 2011 spate of storms knocked out service to more than 900,000 of its customers, resulting in a restoration nightmare. Before repair crews could even be dispatched to affected areas, employees first had to drive or even walk the length of the power lines several times to document the parameters of every problem: where it occurred, what type of wire it was, the number of poles or transformers affected. Not surprisingly, this translated to a very long wait before customers had their lights and heat turned back on.
But now the utility plans to fly drones fitted with cameras along its power lines, many of which are located in rural areas and along roadways that are not readily accessible. The drones will not only record pictures and video of damage, but if supplemented with an infrared camera, they might even be able to pinpoint hot spots on the line where failures are more likely to occur.
Commonwealth Edison — and other utilities that follow suit — will be required to adhere to strict rules that have been laid out for other drone operators, such as keeping the craft away from airports and within the pilot's line of sight. Commonwealth has also agreed to alert local officials ahead of time when it plans to operate the drones.
The unmanned aerial system is faster and less risky than using humans to inspect power lines, and significantly less expensive than deploying helicopters to fly close to transmission lines. Furthermore, hovering not so far on the horizon is the possibility of outfitting drones with laser scanners, which could be used to find the best path through a forest to install a new power line. Special software can create a detailed model of the ground below that even includes individual trees and an estimate of when they might topple.
Last year, another public utility company, San Diego Gas and Electric (SDGE), also began experimenting with drones. With many of its power lines accessible only by helicopter, the utility hopes to rely on the new systems both for routine inspections and in the event of emergencies such as brush fires, as they provide a quicker and more efficient solution. In any event, in the coming years, drones will likely be soaring to a utility near you.