In the mountains near Ponce, Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria tore through, the terrain made it difficult to repair power lines that stretched from peak to peak. For over four months, the entire area was in the dark and so were its residents. In January, utility companies started using a new approach to restoring power: drones. Drones carrying lightweight nylon cord can easily fly over dense, jungle-like vegetation to a pole on the opposite sides of ravines. Then, a 3-D-printed electromagnet attached to the drone allows the drone to drop the cord into the correct position. Finally, utilities workers can attach a larger, stronger cord, and then pull the conductor wire into place, allowing them the ability to restore power.

Originally, utilities companies used helicopters to attach the lines, but the helicopters weren’t able to make the repairs and flying them in these dense thicket areas was dangerous. Workers had also tried to shoot brass projectiles attached to the same type of nylon cord used by the drones across the ravines; but the projectile can only travel 800 feet and several ravines in the area were much longer. The drone strung one cord 1,200 feet. Also, without the drone, workers may miss the target and have to hike out into thick vegetation to find it using machetes to create a path.

Drones have also been used to survey the area, locating broken poles and other infrastructure buried under months of vegetation. With the drones doing reconnaissance instead of workers trekking out into the jungle-like areas, it lessens the amount of time that it takes to locate the broken infrastructure and also keeps the workers safely out of harm’s way.

This is one of many use cases for drones and we are likely to see more drones coming to the rescue in disaster situations in years to come.