The electric grid is constantly exposed to severe storm elements such as high winds, lightning strikes, flooding and wildfire. Even when storms subside, grid components are subject to the long-term impacts of aging facilities, vegetation overgrowth and equipment failure. Preventing environmental factors from causing service interruptions requires access to modern technology for owner-operators to quickly and safely restore service.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, are a terrific tool for utilities in power restoration and outage prevention. Drone programs can help assess damage after an emergency event, keep an eye on asset health and improve the resiliency of the power system.

Damage Assessment

After a storm passes or an emergency situation lessens, utilities can use UAVs for initial damage assessment across wide areas quickly and safely. Drones capture video footage and photographs to aid in rapidly inspecting damage, locating downed power lines and identifying hazards, without endangering personnel or losing valuable time. Drone programs also provide documentation for post-storm review and analysis to support future program improvements.

Using drones for surveillance and damage assessment provides utilities with fast insight into immediate problem locations to begin power restoration prioritization. Drone footage can also identify potential trouble areas that can be prioritized in the recovery program.

With drone footage, crews can determine the exact repair material and tools needed before heading to a site, allowing them to arrive fully equipped with the right equipment to help restore power.

Routine Maintenance

Using drone images to inspect power lines, equipment, substations and system infrastructure helps improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of utility maintenance programs. Using UAVs for field inspections is a faster way to identify needed work and deploy crews to specific sites for repair and maintenance.

Using drones to document asset health allows utilities to record and track footage over time and identify unusual wear-and-tear or heavy vegetation growth to rank maintenance work. By analyzing these data sets and identifying deterioration, maintenance efforts are focused and prioritized to reduce the risk of outages.

Resiliency and Outage Prevention

High-definition photography and video footage gathered through a UAV program can help with detailed equipment inspections and detect potential failure mechanisms, even for the smallest components. By achieving 360-degree views of equipment, utilities can locate risks to grid components to spot early warning signs of failure before outages occur.

High-resolution images and data from infrared or other sensors on drones provide data regarding heat signatures, radio frequency emissions and vibrations that can indicate equipment is in distress and in need of attention. These useful insights help to keep crews safe, pinpoint equipment needs and improve grid resiliency.

Deploying drones as part of damage assessment during emergencies, and for overall system maintenance or resiliency inspections, allows utilities to keep public and employee safety as a top priority. UAVs can potentially save thousands of crew hours while giving management teams faster access to valuable system information.

Gary Huffman is a business development manager for Burns & McDonnell. In his role, he supports client initiatives related to grid modernization.