A few months ago, Amazon surprised quite a few people with the announcement that they’re planning for a drone delivery service. Recently, Twitter used drones to make Vine videos of people attending the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity for the marketing and communication industry.

Amazon and Vine videos aside, drones may also have a huge impact on the utility industry. According to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), an unmanned aircraft system (UAS), or drone, can be used effectively to assess storm damage on utility distribution systems and help utilities shorten their outage response times.

Drones with high-resolution video and digital cameras may help utilities with damage assessments.

Storm and Disaster Response

Damage assessment oftentimes hinders a utility’s ability to restore power. Obstacles such as downed trees blocking roads or icy conditions make it difficult for utility crews to get to and report on damage. Using drones with high-resolution video and digital cameras that transmit real-time information may provide more timely and accurate power line damage assessments and help deploy line crews more efficiently and to restore electric service faster.

According to Bloomberg, Hurricane Sandy spurred this thinking to consider using drones to identify damaged power grid infrastructure after major storms. However, day-to-day operations are where drones are likely to bring innovation to the industry.

Utility Inspections

For instance, utility companies need to do inspections all the time, not just after disasters. Sending a work crew up to inspect thousands of utility poles, remote regions of power plants, or the top of refinery flare towers is time consuming, dangerous and expensive. Using drones would provide an efficient, safe and cost-effective way to perform these inspections.

In the renewal energy sector, finding a faulty solar panel among millions out in the desert is a time and labor-intensive endeavor. Because failing solar modules emit a distinctive heat signature, using a small and cheap drone outfitted with a high-resolution camera and various sensors can easily spot malfunctioning modules. Drones can also be used to detect defective blades on wind turbines and find leaking oil pipelines.

Wildlife Protection

Drones may also help resolve disputes over power plants’ impact on endangered wildlife. Developers of power plants that win regulatory approval spend tens of millions of dollars conducting surveys for protected wildlife, relocating the animals and then monitoring their health for years after.

Once a project is completed, however, wildlife controversies can continue. Using a drone flying close to the ground to conduct wildlife surveys and detect when a protected animal has wandered onto a power plant site would allow it to be removed before it’s hurt.

Drone Use Is Already Here

Outside the U.S., private companies already offer utility inspection and land surveying performed by a drone or UAS. Once the regulatory hurdles in the U.S. are overcome, major utility companies here will undoubtedly be purchasing and operating their own UAS inspection fleets.

The FAA has published a fact sheet that addresses myths about the FAA and unmanned aircraft as they work toward safe integration of UAS by September 30, 2015.

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