Drones set to transform how utilities maintain power grids

Jordan Smith
By Jordan Smith
For business

Utilities in Europe and the United States could soon take advantage of a new technology to maintain their power grids: drones. The unmanned flying vehicles could provide more effective monitoring of electricity lines or gas pipelines, which could in turn save billions of dollars in network failures and repair costs.

Snam, Europe’s largest gas utility, is currently testing a drone along a 15-mile stretch of power lines near Genoa, Italy. RTE, a subsidiary of the French energy giant EDF, has also flown a long-distance drone along some 30 miles of power lines. The drones are referred to as beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) drones because they can fly alone beyond the line of sight of their operators.

RTE’s trial proved successful, with the drone collecting data that allowed engineers to model an entire section of the grid. It therefore appears likely that if used on a broad scale, the drones could provide a more up-to-date picture of the state of sections of utility grids, enabling companies to carry out necessary repairs prior to a power failure.

“It’s a real game changer,” says Michal Mazur of consultant firm PWC. “They’re 100 times faster than manual measurement, more accurate than helicopters and, with AI devices on board, could soon be able to fix problems.”

According to Navigant Research, utilities around the globe are expected to spend over $13 billion annually on drones and other robots by 2026. That’s up from about $2 billion today, translating to an increase of more than 600 percent in eight years.

Even so, utilities are confident their new investments will prove worthwhile, since PWC estimates that power companies lose some $170 billion annually due to grid outages.

US utilities join in

Drone technology is also beginning to appear in the U.S. utility market. In April of this year, energy provider Xcel became the first utility to fly a BVLOS drone along a 50-mile stretch of its grid in Colorado. The flight was made possible by a special waiver granted by the Federal Aviation Administration allowing Xcel to operate the drone beyond the line of sight of pilots and without a tracking aircraft.

Xcel intends to expand the use of drones across the 320,000 miles of electricity and natural gas lines it monitors, including in other states.

However, David Eves, a vice president at Xcel, explained that Colorado made sense as a place to start. “Leading the development of unmanned aircraft builds on our longstanding commitment to safety for our workers, the public and the environment,” said Eves. “This is especially important in Colorado where inspecting power lines in the mountains and remote locations is challenging work.”

Navigant calculates that about $850,000 will be spent on drones in the North American utility market this year. This comparatively modest sum is set to expand more than 20-fold by 2026, rising to a projected $25 million.

Regulatory log jam

Although drones could bring tremendous benefits to the utility sector, their use is being hampered by regulations restricting drone use. The FAA’s decision to allow Xcel Energy to operate a BVLOS drone in Colorado is the only instance to date that it has shifted from the general position that all drones used for commercial use must be visible to their operators.

This restriction, which means human operators must travel with a drone as it flies, limits the ways that drones can be put to use.

According to Michael Hartnack of Navigant Research, it also reduces the likelihood that utilities will invest considerable sums of money to purchase a large fleet of the unmanned vehicles, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars each.

“Today, the utilities that are using drones are doing so as part of a limited pilot program – and that’s where things are going to stay until regulations are eased,” said Hartnack. “So, there’s a ton of potential for drones, but everything is kind of stalled right now.”

Hartnack added that he expects the FAA to loosen regulations within 1 to 3 years.

Some technological questions also remain, including how long battery-powered drones could fly and how autonomous they could be when it comes to carrying out repairs. Hartnack believes these issues can only be tackled when the regulatory log jam is overcome and the market begins to grow, which will create a greater incentive to develop new systems.

One exciting area is the possibility of drones carrying out light repairs. When a tree falls on a power line, utilities currently must send a truck with workers to the scene to conduct the repair.

“But what if you could sit there in the truck and send a drone up with two little robotic arms that grab the tree branch and throw it to the side?” said Hartnack. “And maybe it can do some minor line repair with tape and insulators and things like that. You can save a lot of money and time, minimize power disruption to customers and, most importantly, improve worker safety.”

The coming years will show how quickly such hopes can be transformed into reality.

Jordan Smith is a freelance journalist and translator covering issues related to energy, the environment, and politics. His work has appeared on the independent news site Opposing Views, and at the Canadian Labour Institute.