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  1. Analysis
August 18, 2022

“Disrupting legacy equipment”: the role of drones in power line inspections

We ask how drones could be used in the monitoring of power lines, and whether unmanned flight could be the future of power inspections.

By JP Casey

To say that the power industry is one closely aligned with the latest technological developments is somewhat redundant. This is a sector for which digital twins and AI analytics are not stunning new innovations, but simply part and parcel of managing large-scale power infrastructure.

Yet that is not to say that the energy industry ought to ignore so-called cutting-edge innovation, and the use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), is an example of a newer technology that is becoming more widespread, and delivering key economic benefits, around the world. A 2018 report from PwC claims that should drones be more widely adopted in the UK, the country will see a £42bn ($49.9bn) increase in GDP and see £16bn ($19bn) in net savings by 2030.

There are also particular benefits for the power industry, and monitoring within the power industry in particular. The PwC report notes that drones are already well-established in power for their use in “the inspection of long, linear assets such as power lines”, and could be critical in replacing legacy technology as the power industry looks to refresh its approach.

The potential of drones

While drones and UAVs are often discussed in relation to cutting-edge technological innovation, the devices themselves are relatively straightforward.

“A drone, or more precisely a UAV, is basically a flying frame with a really smart flight computer,” explains Stefano Valentini, president of Drone Volt, a French firm that makes UAVs for use in professional services, such as the energy industry. “What makes the difference are the sensors in the payload, the technology used to process the collected data, and fully integrating all of that into a UAV that is tailor made for the mission profile.”

“The sensors we use go well beyond simply taking pictures or video footage, though we can do that as well,” he adds, and the company’s drones cover this range of functions. Its Hercules 2 and Hercules 10 drones are

both designed for use in power line inspection, and can provide a range of services, from monitoring potential safety hazards, such as corona discharges, to mapping power line networks.

These are not just abstract benefits, either, as Valentini described a number of practical uses for his company’s drones, which deliver on many of the cost-saving and efficiency-improving benefits that are often touted alongside UAVs.

“In a recent operation in Canada, one Drone Bolt Hercules 20 heavy lift drone was used to install six new powerlines over another set of live power lines,” says Valentini. “The operation was completed in one day. The same operation utilising traditional legacy equipment would have [lasted] six days and [employed] a vast number of specialised personnel, safety equipment, and ground-based vehicles.

“The financial savings in this case were five days of work and all the support personnel and equipment.” Drone Volt’s work echoes some of the sentiment of a more recent PwC report, this one published in 2021. The researchers assessed the efficacy of using UAVs to monitor the Beauly-Denny power line in Scotland and found that the use of drones cut the cost of monitoring by 34% over what the report’s authors called the “business as usual” case, shaving around £60,000 ($71,587) from the price of the work.

Adopting new technology

UAVs could also be something of a thin end of the wedge as the power industry moves to incorporate cutting-edge technology on a broader scale. Valentini, for instance, notes that AI is a core component of his company’s services, offering many of the same cost- and time-saving benefits of drones.

“Most data collected from the field from cameras and other sensors still requires a human to make a judgement call when analysing the data, pictures or video,” he says. “These operations are slow, susceptible to human error, and not always done around the clock. AI is able to automate and accelerate the process to a real time level. This provides the technical teams with actionable instructions that can be executed in mere hours instead of days and weeks.”

There is also an interesting phenomenon here where processes once considered cutting-edge are now being phased out, to be replaced with even more innovative practices. Valentini mentions pictures and video assessed by humans, and even helicopters, as processes that are becoming increasingly obsolete in the inspection industry.

“Drone Volt UAVs are disrupting legacy equipment, technology, and infrastructure such as, for example, helicopters, cranes, and other ground-based heavy vehicles,” says Valentini. “Traditionally, helicopters with specialised personnel have executed power line inspections, flying very low and hovering in very close proximity to high-voltage power lines supported on large towers.

“Seasonal weather conditions have dictated when such missions can be carried out [and] this is an extremely dangerous activity that has obvious negative impact on the environment since helicopters leave a heavy carbon footprint,” he continues. “Moreover, the air crews and line inspectors frequently risk their lives deploying the inspection equipment to the power lines themselves.”

Indeed, the 2018 PwC report notes that drones could ultimately replace helicopters in particular as they become cheaper and more available.

Overcoming challenges

Of course, any cutting-edge piece of technology is, by definition, not yet comprehensively adopted, and there is a way to go before drones are ubiquitous across the inspection industry. Yet Valentini notes that the challenges to more widespread adoption are not technological, but legal, in nature.

“The technological challenges are overcome with financial investment and recruiting brilliant engineers from all over the world,” says Valentini. “The real challenge is that the technology is far ahead of the legislation. It has taken many years to reach a point where a well-structured and lean legal framework will be in place in Europe.”

These challenges are most obvious beyond Europe. Take South Africa, for instance, which already boasts 33,027km of high-voltage power lines, and plans to invest around $7bn into energy infrastructure by the end of the decade. This is a vast, and growing, network of power lines, yet many of the benefits offered by UAVs are negated by South Africa’s laws regarding drone piloting, notably that drones can only be flown within a pilot’s line of sight, and that drones cannot be flown during the night.

Yet collaboration could help in overcoming these challenges, with Valentini noting that working alongside other firms has helped Drone Volt get where it is today.

“Hydro-Québec – one of the world’s largest producers of hydroelectricity – and Drone Volt have teamed-up to develop and market the Drone Volt line drone, designed to inspect high-voltage power transmission lines,” explains Valentini.

“The line drone is immune to 400kV electromagnetic fields, and a typical mission would be to fly and land on live electric conductors, shut down its flight motors, deploy its sensor suite, roll along the power line, and inspect the condition of the galvanic protection on transmission and distribution line conductors, even when they are energised.”

In this case, the combination of specific knowledge of drone operation and power management aided in the development of the line drone. For those in the UAV industry, the hope will be that other instances of cooperation can help the technology reach new heights.

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