Drones Do The Dangerous Work

silhouette of a person operating a drone at sunset

Our public utilities providers continue to step up to the enormous challenge of maintaining our power generating plants and distribution infrastructure.  Since power lines and pipelines started interlacing the landscape back in the 1800’s, all sorts of available tools and equipment have evolved over the years to assist these workers.  And now there are drones. 

Don’t expect drones to replace linemen and other skilled trades in the energy sector. But like any tool of the trade, drones offer benefits that make their use attractive, especially as technology improves.  Here are a few benefits:

Safer Work

Ongoing inspections of pylons and pipe that make up power stations and distribution systems is a necessary part of managing our power grid.  Preventative maintenance and repairs – it’s what keeps the lights on.  And there’s a high level of inherent risk in the work, often interacting with energized equipment while hanging from poles, towers and buckets. 

As drones have entered the scene, crews are now able to get a bird’s eye view of overhead systems while remaining on the ground.  Whether it’s mapping the miles of power lines or responding to an outage report at a specific location, the whirring aerial device can take lead on a visual inspection. 

Workers are able to stay a safe distance from dangerous components and may outfit a drone to include such items as thermal sensors that are able to monitor arc points and unusual temperatures.

More Efficient with Drones

Having the ability to access hard-to-reach locations is a plus.  Being able to do it with fewer people and less equipment is even better.  When a substation is off-line and power has to be redirected, getting it back up and functioning eases strain on other parts of the grid.  Faster identification of existing issues allows a quicker response time to disruptions because information gets to the right people quickly. 

Drone crews report spending much less time on site than a conventional response team would.  Set-up is much simpler and can be as easy as a flight operations crew arriving in one vehicle.  The work can usually be done without having to control or close a lane or intersection.  Coordinating fewer field assets frees up those resources for other projects.

More usable information is a notable outcome of drone work.  Consider the value of being able to click on an image and get a broad view of several power poles from 400’ with the ability to zoom in and locate a single component in more detail.  High resolution pictures and videos can be GPS-tagged on a digital map and accessed via a web browser from multiple devices.  Sure beats a spreadsheet in a file cabinet. 

Drones are Cost Effective

Drones provide an energy-efficient alternative on projects that have traditionally employed helicopters and specialized vehicles like bucket trucks and lifts.   

Post-storm damage assessments may become more mobile and require fewer people.  Smaller vehicles outfitted with a drone kit can be deployed to a scene, making it easier to arrive if roads are rough going.

Notable drone features being employed:

  • Unmanned aerial vehicles, (UAV’s) are pilotless drones being used to map large runs in rugged terrain.
  • Ability to hand off pilot control to another as the drone leaves one’s line of sight.
  • Accessories like laser range finders and spotlights.
  • Helpful flight controls, like Return to Home (RTH), an automated feature directing the drone to safely land if connection is lost.

Communication is Key

Maintaining a verbal connection among your drone crew keeps the mission on track.  Real-time communication allows spotters to provide needed information for the pilot.  And even if there’s a high level of experience among the crew, every team improves and becomes more effective when they communicate well as they work together.  Consider communication headsets to be an integral part of ongoing training.

The following features are standard for a flight crew:

  • A portable system that’s contained in a portable case, charged up and ready to go.
  • Listen-through feature built in that enables situational awareness when working in busy or dangerous settings – like on a roadway or around other equipment.
  • Radio integration in order to monitor specific channels keeps you informed of on air traffic when near an airport.  It will also keep you connected with other crews you’re working with using their radio network to communicate.

Ready to learn more? Check out how Sonetics wireless team communication can help your crew be more efficient. 

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