The Newest Member of the Power Restoration Team: Drones

Robynn Andracsek   By Robynn Andracsek, P.E., and David Wallace, P.E.   David Wallace

“Stay home, if you can” was the message given to residents of the Southeast as a major winter storm pushed through the Southern and Eastern United States in mid-February. However, this message was not intended for the hundreds of electric utility workers in those areas. Just the term “Ice Storm” can bring a chill to linesmen as they know the pressure, stress and long hours that are in store, braving the elements to restore power as quickly and safely as possible under the worst conditions. To most people it seems to take a long time to get the power restored, but they don’t know why.

As the storm approaches, whether it’s a winter storm, a hurricane or a tornado outbreak, the utility is hoping that either 1) the storm is not as bad as predicted or 2) the storm changes path and misses their system entirely. But in either case, or if neither happens, they must start getting ready. Material coordinators must take a look at all of the materials in stock as well as those that are being delivered in the coming days. They talk with their materials suppliers to make sure vendors are ready in case additional materials are needed. They also need to have drivers in place to deliver the materials to the various sites. At the same time, construction crews are getting geared up making plans for the long days ahead as well as contacting neighboring utility crews to see if they can help out with the restoration, if needed.

However, until the storm hits and the utility can assess what the actual damages are, it is difficult to know how long the outages to the system will last. Until the utility knows what needs to be fixed and where, it is impossible to prioritize the work, the materials, or the crews. Enter the newest member of the power restoration team: the unmanned drone.

Currently, accessing the damage to a utilities system requires personnel on the ground with knowledge of the pieces that make up the system. Until someone can identify that the crossarm bracket is broken, or the insulator assembly is damaged, or the strain clamp came loose, it is difficult to plan how many people are required to fix the problem, let alone to have the parts delivered and ready for installation when the crew gets there. To identify the problems usually requires someone to walk along the right-of-way to the affected area and make notes of the problems. After assessing the damage, the worker then walks back to the truck, radios the supervisor to report what materials are needed and proceeds to the next area or line section to find more problems. The supervisor collects the various field reports, totals the materials needed and the locations where they are required, and calls the information to the materials coordinators to get the supplies delivered. Simultaneously, supervisors are working with the system operations personnel to begin prioritizing the work.

However, with the drone as part of the team, you can speed up the process of accessing the damage to the system. With video capabilities and GPS coordinates, assessment personnel can stay near the vehicle and record on tablet computers what materials are needed. This information can be sent to the materials coordinators and supervisors at the same time. This approach greatly cuts the amount of time it takes to access the damage, identify the materials and get the materials delivered.

If this is true, why don’t utilities utilize some of these new technologies to help streamline a power restoration process that in many cases takes weeks to complete?

Even though drones have been around for years, they have not been available for commercial use. Currently, only public agencies and individuals who have acquired special certificates of waiver can use drones, and they must do so under tightly controlled conditions. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently working to establish guidelines for commercial use. This year, the FAA has approved six test sites across the country to spend most of 2014 conducting research and making recommendations so that a regulatory framework can be put in place by 2015.

Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COA) are available to public entities that want to fly an unmanned aircraft system (drone) in civil airspace. Common uses today include law enforcement, firefighting, border patrol, disaster relief, search and rescue, military training and other government operational missions. Obtaining a COA would be one way that electric utilities could be granted permission to utilize drones for power restoration.

In any natural disaster, teamwork is the key to quick resolution. Adding drones to the utility crew can greatly speed up power restoration. Hopefully, regulators will catch up to this new technology so that 2015 can see a faster return to normal life for areas experiencing power loss.

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