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The Future of Drones in the Electrical Power Industry

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The Future of Drones in the Electrical Power Industry

Drone technology and application in the Power industry is growing at a rapid pace. Utilities have wasted no time jumping on board since the Federal Aviation Administration authorized drones for commercial use in 2015. 

Benefits to Electric Utilities

The task of maintaining and inspecting high voltage transmission and distribution lines can be difficult, dangerous and costly. As a result, utilities are increasingly looking toward drones as a safe and effective tool to assist them in their T&D operations.

On average, U.S. utilities collectively spend between $6 billion to $8 billion a year to inspect and maintain their power lines with helicopters and ground crews. Drones drastically cut the costs of power line inspections for utilities. They also improve safety, increase reliability and reduce response time across transmission and distribution systems.  Drones also give utilities the ability to quickly and efficiently identify threats to the energy grid.

Drone technology can assist engineers in the process of designing the electrical infrastructure as well.   Drones with integrated LiDAR systems can produce Photogrammetry, LiDAR mapping and creation of RGB/multi-spectral colorized LiDAR point clouds. When added with other sensors, drones can also gather other useful data through infrared sensors, ultraviolet cameras and radio frequency sensors.

With these benefits, it’s easy to understand the growing attraction to drones. A handful of utilities, including San Diego Gas & Electric, Xcel Energy, National Grid, Southern Company and Duke Energy, have either implemented Drones in their maintenance programs.

UAV Corona Inspections

Corona discharge is a luminous partial discharge from conductors and insulators due to ionization of the air, where the electrical field exceeds a critical value. This process is accompanied by excitation of Nitrogen molecules, leading to emission of UV radiation.
Corona activity on High Voltage equipment may or may not be destructive, however in general it is not a desirable occurrence, since it signifies a defect in a component design or installation which creates a local high electric field. Corona discharges can generation of corrosive materials, like ozone and nitrogen oxides that yield nitric acids when exposed to moisture. These corrosive materials shorten the life span of high voltage lines and substations components. They also generate Radio interference (RI/ RFI) on AM frequencies which affect radio and television broadcasts. 

Utilities are typically made aware of corona by complaints of faulty radio or television signals. Because corona are invisible in daylight with the naked eye, maintenance crews will investigate by aiming devices such a corona camera or radio antenna at suspected areas, and track corona. Corona activity generates very little heat and therefore is not detected with Infra-Red cameras
Recent advancements in UV Camera designs, have made way to lightweight UAV mountable systems. This application allows for a cost effective scan of the substations and transmission networks.

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