Gaining an Edge: Advantages of Drones in Utilities

September 28, 2021 by
Gaining an Edge: Advantages of Drones in Utilities
Chris Fink

Advantages of Drones in Utilities

It’s no secret that drones are commonly associated with data collection. At UVT, we make a case for the strategic application of drone data collection and its tangible benefits in various rugged industries. Our previous blogs investigated the effectiveness of drones in firefighting and crisis response, but drones have also made an unprecedented impact in the utility industry.

The documentation of drone use for utilities has a long history, particularly for high-altitude inspections and transmission and distribution operations. With the frequency and destructive impact of storms and the continued construction of skyscrapers, wind turbines, and miles of pipelines and power lines, more businesses are turning to drones as a solution.

The long and complex processes that once put workers’ lives at risk are made obsolete with the correct drone and a well-trained pilot. This article explores the numerous applications and advantages of deploying drones in utilities.

How can drones help in utilities?

Inspection is a critical stage in any utilities project. The application of drones in inspection is a win-win: the data gathered is not only highly accurate but is collected in much less time and guarantees the safety of the team. Drones serve as force multipliers, enhancing your team’s total effectiveness many times over.

Here are three specific areas of utility work where drones can aid:

Improved Accuracy and Efficiency

High-quality cameras that capture both RGB and thermal imagery allow workers to identify key details and defects of the structures and machinery they are inspecting. Solar-panel failures and pipeline leaks are easily detected with thermal imagery from a bird’s-eye view. 

The vantage points and direct feedback also expedite the inspection process at a speed otherwise unattainable through labor alone. Workers typically have to wait for power lines to be disabled before attempting an inspection; but with drones, there is no waiting. The same is true of wind turbines and tall buildings — workers no longer have to climb, and scaffolding does not have to be erected. For solar panels, the right drone can inspect over 4,000 solar panels an hour, compared to an average of 60 panels an hour by manual inspection, and with a higher degree of accuracy.

Heightened Safety

Inspections are dangerous by nature because they are often prompted by a malfunction or failure. Drones can examine power lines, roofs, and other utility infrastructure, sparing workers from unstable ground and adverse weather conditions. This is especially important after a storm when the safety status of power lines is often unknown.

With more than one in every 200 wind turbine blades failing each year, workers are often exposed to long and perilous inspections. Drones with automated piloting software can not only assess the structural integrity of a turbine faster, safer, and more accurately than a ground crew, but do so autonomously with ground-based support.

Drones can also easily identify the source of damage after disasters, which allows workers to focus on fixing an issue instead of diagnosing it.

Cost Reduction

By gathering information more efficiently and avoiding costly precautions for workers, drones quickly pay for themselves. Utilizing a drone’s various imaging sensors on solar panels and wind turbines significantly reduces the manpower and resources required for inspection, cutting costs by up to 40 percent and 80 percent respectively.

When paired with photogrammetry software, drones can easily map dams. Workers can use these 3D models to maneuver difficult terrain and locate key areas quickly, reducing costs by up to 60 percent.

Inevitable inspections — like those seen on powerlines after hurricanes and other disasters — require several days of large teams operating cherry pickers and helicopters. The one-time cost of a cherry picker inspection alone costs as much as some of the most sophisticated drones on the market.

In some cases, the cost of halting a company or facility’s operation costs more than the inspection itself. At UVT, we are very familiar with this particular issue.

Jarret Rhyner, our very own Solutions Specialist, once inspected the roof of a large chemical manufacturing warehouse. Unidentified leaks threatened to shut down the warehouse’s operation for an extended period to install a new roof, which would have cost millions of dollars.

After consulting different roofing experts, who were unable to come up with an actionable solution, Jarret located the compromised tiles utilizing thermal imaging through UAVs. By preventing the demolition and replacement of the entire roof, their operation continued uninterrupted, which cut total repair costs by 95 percent.

What drones and payloads are helpful in utility work?

Any drone that immediately provides high-quality images while deployed is a good fit for gathering crucial, timely information for your utility tasks. Here are a few of our picks.

Simple in use but sophisticated in its technology, the DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Advanced and the Autel EVO II Enterprise 640T are formidable options. In addition to their high-resolution cameras with thermal capabilities, each can be quickly deployed, has a strong battery life, and can fit inside your glove box for easy, portable storage.

The DJI Matrice 300 RTK with Zenmuse H20T Payload is the most versatile platform, fit for any operation. The Matrice 300 RTK’s refined airframe, advanced propulsion system, and six-direction see-and-avoid obstacle sensing system can handle any obstacle. To assist in gathering data, the attachable H20T gimbal payload includes four sensors: a high-resolution thermal camera, a 20-megapixel 23x hybrid optical zoom, a 12-megapixel wide-angle sensor, and a laser range finder.

Still Have Questions?

We know that despite our best recommendations, finding the right drone for your specific line of utility work can be a daunting task. Our experts have years of experience on and off the field and are dedicated to helping you find a customized and tailored solution that provides you with a complete ready-to-deploy system on day one. Contact us, we’d love to work with your organization to put together a fleet that is right for you.

We’ll be here when you need us.

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