It’s true. Utility and power companies really love using drones. While it seems like drones are everywhere now, with trillions of dollars’ worth of industrial infrastructure aging across the country, worker safety and terrorism concerns, climate change putting strain on power grids, manufacturing facilities and oil and gas production, drones offer a cheaper and more effective way of monitoring infrastructure. Drones are being used to spot faults or overgrown foliage in transmission and distribution liens across the U.S. Monitoring hot, dry areas (like Northern California) is becoming increasingly important –one corporation may owe as much as $17.3 billion in liabilities from the 2017 fires in wine country. Drones were also used to restore power lines in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria shut off nearly 80 percent of the island’s electricity.
And, while threat detection and power-restoration services are certainly beneficial, there’s another set of services that drones can provide that is just as significant: operations and maintenance. Further, as drones improve, so will the services they provide. Drones that can only collect video footage or photos are limited to inspections. With machine vision, enhanced sensors and grabbing arms and probes, drones may be able to fix minor faults in wind turbines, clear away foliage and defend assets from bad actors. Drones will be able to fly longer, act independently and replace dangerous or boring human labor as advances in 3-D vision and computational photography, cheaper communications networks and lightweight batteries improve and make their way into the market.
Research conducted by Bloomberg L.P. also found that in-house drones are cheaper than third-party drone inspection as a service, which means that while in-house drones require up-front costs, such as the drone itself, the software, the payload, appropriate policies and procedures to comply with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations and training programs (perhaps new hires), in-house drones have better economics than using a third-party service.
Additionally, drones can be used to detect methane leaks coming from oil and gas pipelines at 1,000 times the accuracy of traditional methods, saving pipeline owners significant money on leaked product and potential fines.
However, of course, there are pitfalls –FAA regulations require drone pilots to stay within line of sight of the drone, heavy batteries limit flight times (sometimes only 20 minutes), buzzing rotors are often thought of as a nuisance to passersby. However, as technologies improve and regulations evolve these issues will likely be resolved.