By David Price, Nathan Ives and Caitlin Frank
Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology is garnering growing interest in the utility space for its use in asset inspections. Adding imaging or sensing devices to these small aircraft enables improved data collection safety, quality, speed, and cost. With UAV prices dropping, using UAV as part of an integrated enterprise asset management program is becoming easier than ever. Or, is it?
Developing a UAV-capable enterprise is more than simply purchasing the UAV hardware and flying it around assets. Building a culture of adoption for UAV technology requires considerable thought and planning for the people, processes, and technology within an organization. Many utilities have started to explore the benefits of using UAV to support asset inspections but struggle to move beyond pilot projects to develop standardized processes that are a part of their overall enterprise asset management program.
A utility, recently having purchased a rotary UAV, wants to look at several hundred miles of transmission lines damaged after a large storm devastated the area. Although the technology is at hand, no one on the team knows quite where to start: What are the critical assets that need to be assessed, and how do we deploy our teams to start inspecting the damage?
Then, after eventually collecting the asset data using the UAV, an analyst is now sat at her desk, dreading the thousands of images and data points that she has to work through. What asset is that cracked transformer associated to, and where is it? What maintenance and repair follow-up actions are needed now that I have photos and data points on our assets?
“Utilities deploying a UAS have seen considerable improvements in inspection time. Field tests… found that using a UAS allowed them to inspect 20 or more 500 kV transmission towers per day.”
These are the types of scenarios that utilities will begin to face as they embrace these new technologies, and while these may seem like daunting questions to face, embracing the changes to make a utility UAV-capable will bring great benefits.
Meeting Asset Inspection Challenges Head-On
Performing complex asset inspections is a difficult, time-consuming process for utilities. Physical inspections may also present safety challenges and sometimes deliver inconsistent results, dependent on factors such as the inspector experience and weather conditions. Using an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) -especially when inspecting hard-to-access assets such as transmission towers -not only accelerates the inspection process; it eliminates safety hazards for utility employees and standardizes how data is collected and recorded.
Utilities deploying a UAS have seen considerable improvements in inspection time. Field tests with a leading electric transmission and distribution provider in Ontario, Canada, found that using a UAS allowed them to inspect 20 or more 500 kV transmission towers per day; reducing inspection times by over 50 percent, while simultaneously moving personnel away from the high energy system.
Improved asset inspection efficiency enables utilities to realize reduced costs and/or more frequent data collection. More frequent inspections drive better intelligence on asset performance trends over time. Furthermore, the use of UAV governed by automated flight scripting heightens data collection consistency and quality needed for bulk and over-time analyses.
Utilities employing standardized asset models outlining critical facilities and components, as well as their required attributes further improve field data collection by ensuring the right data is captured during each flight. When integrated with the utility’s asset and work management systems, the ability to generate immediate follow-up repair and maintenance work orders, as well as perform bulk and over-time asset performance analysis, is gained. Integrating a UAS solution into a utility’s enterprise asset management system enables the organization to gain a clear, full lifecycle view of asset conditions and performance; informing decisions for overall operations improvements, extending asset life and determining future capital investments.
Implementing a UAS Program
Planning the successful deployment of a UAV-based enterprise asset management program can be thought of in three main components: people, process, and technology.
Engaging the Right Professionals
Engaging the right personnel within an organization is an integral part of creating a holistic UAS program. Clearly defined roles and responsibilities help establish a comprehensive process that will touch many aspects of the utility’s business. Operations professionals within a utility organization, from the C-suite to the shop floor, should be involved when developing this new asset management program to ensure that aspects of business strategy (capital investment planning, and risk management) as well as day-to-day operations (maintenance, safety, analytics, and aviation) are taken into account and incorporated into the standardized inspection process.
Developing a holistic asset management culture, despite what technologies are being used, can be a daunting task. Gaining this level of collaboration often requires the assistance of a third-party expert that can help bring these diverse functions together to best determine how to optimally integrate business operations with an end-to-end UAS solution.
An asset management partner with deep technical and industry knowledge and world-class engineering expertise can help evaluate foundational program components such as:
- Identifying the body of use cases for which the UAS will support
- Adapting current enterprise business processes
- Determining the optimal insourcing and outsourcing of various UAS services
- Selecting staff members to be involved
- Identifying the staff training/certifications needed
Defining the UAV Inspection Solution Process
Many industry-leading utilities have invested heavily in improving asset records and automating creation of compliance inspections and maintenance work. Building on this progress, the systematic integration of a UAS solution into this process allows for thoughtful planning of resources and prioritization of work to inspect critical assets.
By using an enterprise asset management system to trigger frequent inspections, mid- and long-term flight planning can be conducted, improving cost and efficiency of inspections, and providing insight into where future capital would be best spent. Planned orders can then be scheduled for pilots and resources. Critical information and a standardized set of forms will outline the specific information to be gathered.
Once the data is collected, where will it go? UAS data integration and management continues to be a challenge for utilities.
Utilities must ensure secure and standardized collection, storage and transfer of structured asset data. Integration of this data into an existing enterprise asset management system can drive future operations, maintenance, repair and inspection work as well as capital business investment decisions.
“While there are many technology options available, in the end, what will benefit a utility most is the ability to integrate UAV-based inspection data into its enterprise asset management system.”
In the ideal asset data collection approach, inspection requests originate from an asset management system and are used to develop an inspection flight plan. The inspection flight gathers images and/or videos based on peripheral UAV attachments, which are securely transmitted in near real-time to a digital form to be completed by a qualified utility technician. Completed inspection forms are saved to a cloud-based data bank. The inspection data is then transmitted back to the utility’s asset management system for storage; enabling condition-based alerts, notifications for upcoming inspection dates, and ongoing asset performance analysis.
Survey results from the 2017 Strategic Directions: Electric Industry Report indicate that 73 percent of electric utilities are capturing asset performance data, but only 35 percent are using that data to inform strategic and tactical investment decisions.
Deploying the Technology
The technology component, of course, encompasses the choice of which UAV hardware and software solution best fits a utility’s needs. Depending on which infrastructure elements are to be inspected, considerations should include UAV range, image and data types needed, and piloting capabilities. Does your utility need high definition aerial photos, 3-D images, methane gas detection, and/or thermal analyses? Requirements will vary between utilities in the electric, oil and gas, telecommunications, and water industries.
For example, power transmission tower inspections operated by pilot technicians are best suited for rotary UAVs that can operate within visual line of sight and allow for repeatable flight plans. Similarly, telecommunications providers use rotary UAVs to perform cell tower inspections that identify tower-mounted equipment and configurations/orientations, structural and dimensional mapping of towers, and verification of transmitter/receiver antenna line systems. Power line infrastructure inspections that must be made over several miles can benefit from a beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) UAS.
For oil and gas providers, a UAS can help meet economic and environmental requirements for keeping facilities operational and safe. A rotary UAS can monitor pipelines for potential leaks using methane detectors and provide real-time performance data on assets using thermal cameras.
A UAS can benefit water utilities through confined space inspections inside wastewater treatment plants and dams, where accessing tight spaces to perform corrosion analysis can be hazardous to inspectors because of contamination, lack of oxygen, and other environmental factors.
While there are many technology options available, in the end, what will benefit a utility most is the ability to integrate UAV-based inspection data into its enterprise asset management system. One of the keys to the introduction of a UAS capable organization will be a standardized approach and set of processes to manage UAV, regardless of the hardware requirements of the utility.
Scaling Up for Future Operations
It was only three years ago when the Federal Aviation Administration authorized the first utility UAV program for San Diego Gas & Electric. So it’s no surprise that perhaps one of the biggest hurdles for utilities considering UAV use as part of their infrastructure inspection program is understanding and preparing for regulatory and legal ramifications. Depending on geographic location and type of aircraft, policies and requirements will vary. Working with a third-party expert with utility inspection experience can help ensure that compliance requirements are met when planning and executing inspection flights.
Federal mandates concerning the use of UAS technology will likely evolve over time and keeping a close watch on regulations will be critical as utilities scale their UAV-based operations. However, with increased regulatory pressure on these industries, the use of a UAS can also add considerable value to enterprise asset management programs. Lower-cost inspections allow for more frequent and higher quality asset surveys than required for regulatory compliance; allowing a utility to better identify anomalies and review potential risks in targeted locations for more proactive asset management.
With aging assets a top issue for nearly every critical infrastructure sector in the United States, optimizing current asset performance and making intelligent capital investments is a major priority for utility leaders. By focusing on developing the optimal enterprise-wide UAS program, a UAS-enabled utility will be able to make better, risk-based decisions around future asset investments, operations, maintenance.
David Price is Chief Technology Officer and Associate Vice President, Business and Technology Architecture in Black & Veatch Management Consulting LLC. Nathan Ives is a Managing Director, Business and Technology Architecture in Black & Veatch Management Consulting LLC. Caitlin Frank is a Consultant of Business and Technology Architecture in Black & Veatch Management Consulting LLC.