Power out? Utilities could soon call on drones to help

One appealing aspect of the smart grid is the concept of “self-healing” — that is, the idea that smarter sensors, data and controls will enable our energy infrastructure to automatically detect problems and adjust systems accordingly before small glitches can lead to massive power failures.

But what about when a massive failure has already occurred … for example, when a violent storm leaves behind a swath of downed trees and broken power lines? Not only is such damage unlikely to “self-heal,” but sensors alone might not be able to give utility crews a full picture of the destruction and which areas need repair first.

Maybe not. But unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — better known these days as “drones” — might.

Already familiar for their use in air strikes by the US military, and increasingly being adopted for everything from conservation efforts to Occupy protest support, drones have recently been successfully tested for possible use by utilities in assessing storm damage.

Working at the New Mexico State University Flight Test Center, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) recently tried out a variety of drone technologies equipped with high-resolution video cameras and flying at altitudes of 5,000 to 7,000 feet.

“Our research clearly shows that drones may provide utilities a tool that could reduce outage restoration time,” said Matthew Olearczyk, senior program manager for distribution research at EPRI. “Using live streaming video information, utility system operators would be able to dramatically improve damage assessment.”

For all the smart technologies being added by many utility operators, “dumb” obstacles like icy conditions or downed trees blocking roads can still make it hard for repair crews to reach areas that need to be assessed for power line damage. By using drones, utilities could pinpoint trouble spots more quickly, identify repair priorities more easily and provide more up-to-date information to customers.

The oil-and-gas industry, forestry sector and other industries are also exploring the possibility of using drones in their operations. And, with the recent approval in Congress of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act, more unmanned aerial vehicles are likely to be seen buzzing across US skies sometime soon: the bill calls for the FAA to fast-track the “integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system.”


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