The utilities industry includes integrated power utility companies delivering basic amenities such as electricity, natural gas, water, sewer, internet, telephone, cable TV, and trash collection. It covers fossil fuel power plants, nuclear power plants, and renewable energy sources like solar panels, wind turbines, and power from dam turbines.
Drones and remote aerial sensing are increasingly used in the utilities industry for inspections of infrastructure including equipment, transmission and distribution lines, pipelines, dams, solar farms, wind farms, construction sites, substations, aqueducts, smokestacks, and landfills.
Latest advancements in sensing and imaging technologies are enabling drones to be deployed in a wide range of settings. They are now often used for perimeter security, and in performing inspection and predictive maintenance of critical miles-long infrastructure. Recent changes in the FAA process for gaining Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) certifications is enabling autonomous inspections by drone of power lines and pipelines.
Some past experiences here at Icaros includes:
- Aerial Energy Audit – complete GIS workflow and application covering 3 major Pennsylvania cities. Built for Pennsylvania Power and Light (see more info below)
- Aerial Energy audits for 8 U.S. Army National Guard Bases for the Army Corps of Engineers
- Underground pipeline mapping
- Inspections to locate leaking water pipes
- Above ground gas pipeline inspections
- Power line inspections and mapping
- Telecom cell phone line-of-sight analysis
- Compliancy audits
Utilities rely on inspections to maintain safety standards, perform preventative maintenance and effectively power the world, but those inspections can take large amounts of time and money to carry out. Utilizing drones and remote imagery, damage on everything from wind turbines to solar panels can quickly be identified, preventing potential problems before they happen. With data collected by a drone, and information systems provided by Icaros, anomalies and damage can be quickly pinpointed, repair tasks initiated, and progress on repairs monitored. Remotely sensed data can include everything from images, video, thermal images, orthomosaics, digital elevation maps, elevation contour maps, ground-based sensor data, ground penetrating radar (GPR) data and LIDAR, all of which can be used to more frequently monitor assets, minimize risk to repair teams and quickly observe hard to reach asset infrastructure.
Drone technology can drastically reduce inspection time, save labor costs and reduce hazardous manhours. For large scale projects, such as pipeline and power line corridors, Icaros can secure BVLOS exemptions for drone use, and has longer range drones available to fly. Alternatively, we have a lot of experience using helicopters for large scale inspection projects.
Using remote sensing, and anomaly detection software, imagery acquired by a drone for a 100-kilometer segment of gas pipeline can be inspected in a few hours with machine learning, work that would have taken weeks using traditional methods. Drone inspections can find tiny fissures, possibly caused by seismic activity, for example, that would be very difficult to find in any other manner.
Aerial drone-in-a-box robots bring safety benefits by providing an autonomous solution to monitor inspection and maintenance tasks. Drone-in-a-Box systems provide remote access to unapproachable locations along power transmission corridors where field teams face risks from trimming foliage near high-voltage equipment, climbing towers for inspections, and assessing damage after natural disasters. Drones can even pinpoint leaks in underground water pipelines and gas lines and find the source of outages on power lines.
Drones are also revolutionizing site selection and environmental mitigation with survey-grade drone mapping software and aerial imaging.
The following lists just a few ways drones are transforming utility and energy operations, lowering worker and business risk and improving operational efficiency for energy companies and electric, gas, solar, water and wind utilities:
- Smokestack inspections
- Perimeter and rights-of-way security, including monitoring for potential terrorist security threats, and monitoring for criminal activity in remote areas
- Rights-of-way vegetation management
- Inspections of gas and water pipelines for corrosion and leaks
- Inspection of transmission and distribution lines for equipment wear, corrosion, leaning, sagging wires, broken insulators or stay wires
- Real-time monitoring during and after emergencies
- Survey-grade maps for siting transmission lines, pipelines, dams, solar farms and wind farms
- Construction site monitoring and reporting
- Line of sight analysis
- Substation equipment inspections
- Wind turbine preventive maintenance inspections
- Pinpointing malfunctioning solar panels
- Monitoring ideal orientation of solar panels to maximize energy output
- Hydroelectric dam inspections
- Aqueduct and canal inspections
- Remediation site monitoring
- Coal stockpile volume calculation
- Inspections of ash ponds
- Sewer inspections
DRONE USE BY UTILITIES: TAPPING HUGE POTENTIAL
Public utilities have much to gain by drone adoption. In the U.S. alone, there are 600,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 5.5 million miles of distribution lines that need periodic inspection. Helicopters for line inspections typically cost between $1,000 and $2,000 per hour, while drones can cost as little as $200 to $300 per hour to do the work while collecting even more data.
On the natural gas side, there are an estimated 2.4 million miles of underground natural gas pipeline across the country. Pipeline leak detection is now being done via drones mounted with thermal imaging sensors.
As for renewable energy, 6,000-plus utility-scale solar facilities nationwide require regular inspections. Drones can detect specific panels that are malfunctioning far more quickly than a field crew on foot. There are also some 52,000 utility-scale wind turbines operating in the U.S., and an estimated 800,000-plus turbine blades worldwide that need regular inspection. Drones eliminate much of the climbing associated with this work.
Water utility operations can span tens of thousands of acres of watershed lands; thousands of miles of pipelines, tunnels and sewer lines; reservoirs and tanks; and treatment plants. UAVs can measure soil temperature differences near leaking pipelines, rapidly pinpointing problems in remote areas. And aerial construction site monitoring helps with environmental compliance on large projects like dam replacements, avoiding stop-work claims that can cost a utility $100,000 a day.
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, MACHINE LEARNING AND SOFTWARE PROVIDES DATA, SAFETY, EFFICIENCY
Remote sensing solutions combined with geographic information systems (GIS) from Icaros provide operational ROI and safety advances. Drones are great at flying and collecting data, but energy and utility companies are also investing in software, artificial intelligence, and machine learning (AI/ML) technologies to make sense of all the photographic, video, LIDAR, thermal, and infrared data gathered by sensors and cameras. Autonomous drone-in-a-box systems, AI/ML, and geospatial task and repair management information systems, such as MapGage (see more information on this website), ensure efficiency and ROI from data collection, analysis and reporting.
Today, energy audits are commonly performed from the ground using hand-held devices. This technique can be problematic if buildings are too tall or numerous. At Icaros, we provide resources and experience to facilitate large-scale energy audits across campuses of buildings, military bases, towns, and entire cities. We do an initial pass from the air to give an accurate perspective of envelopes of buildings for further ground investigation of potential energy loss from windows and doors, and of excess moisture around the outsides of buildings and on rooftops for remediation.
As energy demands continue to drive the growth of worldwide businesses and communities, we apply the latest geospatial tools and technologies to audit energy use in buildings and monitor the energy industry’s critical energy infrastructure and facilities. We tailor our services to meet the challenges of our clients in a robust, efficient and cost-effective manner.
Icaros is a pioneer in the use of aerial oblique thermography to monitor energy consumption and waste in the outer sides and rooftops of buildings. We can deliver actionable information in a matter of hours to efficiently enable remediation or identify exact locations needing further investigation. Our analysts are certified energy audit professionals and through close collaboration with the Infraspection Institute and energy audit partners we can provide resources to perform further ground-based investigations as well as additional internal building infrastructure energy audit services.