In today’s digital economy, U.S. utility companies are rethinking their operations as advanced technologies present new opportunities to stay competitive while also improving worker safety. Drones offer tremendous potential to revolutionize how the utility industry manages operations, offering a dramatic way to cut costs, reduce time and prevent injuries — while giving utility companies the real-time, detailed information they need to precisely manage their operations.
It’s well known that risk of injury or fatality in the utilities sector is very real. Workplace fatalities in the transportation, warehousing and utilities sector comprised 17.3% of all U.S. workforce fatalities according to 2015 figures compiled by the CDC. Drones offer huge safety benefits, reducing the need for workers to climb towers, examine foliage near high-voltage equipment, physically assess damage after a natural disaster, or drive remote roads. With the close-up aerial images that drones provide, workers can spot maintenance issues without the need to climb poles or physically access hard-to-reach infrastructure. Companies can identify problems around pipelines by directly visualizing leaks with multi-spectral imaging cameras. They can also monitor potential construction site hazards and help project managers to mitigate safety risks before accidents occur.
So how exactly can drones improve worker safety in utility industry operations? Here are five ways:
1. Inspections. In the U.S. alone, there are 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, more than 52,000 utility-scale wind turbines and more than 600 coal-fired power plants. Each needs routine inspection and maintenance.
Using a drone (or several) to inspect the line, turbine or boiler can save time and significantly reduce human risk. For example, a drone was used to inspect a 100-kilometer gas pipeline in Mexico. The company spotted a fissure possibly caused by seismic activity, along with other potential problems, in just one hour. The same work would have taken weeks using traditional methods. By outfitting each line worker’s truck with a small drone that can zip up and down a pole or tower to capture data and images, companies can speed inspections and eliminate the need for a worker to climb to dangerous heights or clamber in or out of a bucket truck.
Further, once the FAA begins to permit more flights beyond a pilot’s visual line of sight (which currently requires a lengthy waiver process), utility companies will be able to service hundreds of miles of lines much more quickly and efficiently.
2. Natural Disasters. In 2017, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, natural disasters caused a record-breaking $306 billion in total damage across the U.S., the largest amount for one year. While that figure includes far more than just damaged utilities, natural disasters do create dramatic repair and replacement costs for utility companies and can put workers in harm’s way as they assess and report damage and aid in search and recovery efforts. Drones can be called in to map and assess damaged areas, search for and provide aid to individuals and families, extinguish fires, and capture essential imagery to aid in overall rebuilding efforts.
3. Hazardous Material Exposure. Dangerous chemicals can leak into the environment for various reasons. Leaks can come from factory or power plant malfunctions, spills during transportation, or even terrorist attacks. In March 2011, a powerful earthquake caused a tsunami to hit Japan, resulting in severe damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The damage caused the release of dangerous nuclear material. Drones were deployed to assess the extent of the destruction and were able to provide aid in monitoring for radiation exposure, repairing destroyed areas, and rebuilding efforts — all while minimizing nuclear exposure for relief workers.
4. Avoiding Fragile or Dangerous Ecosystems and Habitats. Often utility companies need to build lines and place infrastructure in areas with protected native animals and plants in order to properly service nearby towns and cities. However, with the aid of drone technology, planning and constructing infrastructure can take into account sensitive ecosystems and habitats. For example, one engineering firm used drones to reduce its impact on wildlife and protected cactus in Arizona as it planned new transmission lines.
5. Suspicious Activity. Finally, utility companies can use drones to spot and prevent trespassing, vandalism, and other crimes. Using drones, they can quickly identify damaged fencing, monitor for potential security threats, and search for illegal drug labs and other criminal activity in remote areas.
Managing Your Drone Operations
As you add drones to your business, it’s important to consider what software is needed to manage your program. Utility companies need to invest in software to make sense of all the photographic, GIS, thermal, and infrared data gathered by drones. They also need to understand where it’s safe to fly, track pilot credentials, maintain fleets, and store required documents like FAA waivers. Drone operations management platforms like Skyward offer a single source for pilots, risk managers, and executives to get visibility into all aspects of a commercial drone program.
As utilities make the digital transformation, drones offer a powerful way to improve their operations, while increasing worker safety. Now is the time to make these unmanned aerial systems a part of your everyday operations.
Mike Danielak is Director of UAS Strategy and Business Development at Skyward. Skyward, a Verizon company, supports commercial drone operations of all sizes.