Drones have the potential to revolutionize the way we inspect our power-lines and transmission towers. According to Navigant Research, using a drone can slash costs from $5,000 to $200 for a single transmission tower inspection. And we get far more accurate data too.
Consider this. According to 2017 estimates, losses from national outages totaled $169 billion. Coupled with huge economic savings, when you also consider the reduced human intervention, using drones for power-line inspections become an increasingly attractive proposition.
However, using drones for power-line inspections comes with its own set of risks. And, when you make a mistake, the ramifications are huge. Only pilots with considerable flying experience under their belt should venture into this field.
What are some of the Risks associated with using drones for power-line inspections?
When you fly your drone near high KV power-lines, an invisible interference is exerted on your drone. This makes flying extremely difficult. A layman can compare this interference to a Wi-Fi network. Greater the distance between your drone and the power-lines, lesser the interference.
Remember that you cannot use a consumer drone without ferro-magnetic protection for power-line inspections. Flying your drone near a high voltage power-line will simply fry up your flight controller!
Ferro magnetic resistance measures how much resistance a drone is capable of handling. The Phantom 4 Pro, for instance is known to have greater ferro-magnetic resistance than an Inspire 1 and Inspire 2.
You are likely to face less interference and problems if you are flying above or beside the power-lines. However, if you are flying in-between power-lines, flight interference will see a huge spike. It is advisable to maintain a distance of 100 feet from a power-line at all times.
Which equipment will you need for doing power-line inspections?
Let us start with the drone. A high end drone like the M 210 is better suited for doing power-line inspections. D-RTK module to resist magnetic interference, Z30 camera with high zoom capability and a dual gimbal systems renders the M210 apt for power-line inspections.
It is possible to carry an optical camera and a thermal camera on the M210. This accelerates problem detection and diagnosis.
Some pilots use consumer drones for power-line inspections. But, what about the ferro-magnetic interference? A Faraday cage can take care of this. Installing a Faraday cage will help prevent your flight controller from frying up due to ferromagnetic interference. If you are open to a rudimentary approach, you can also wrap a piece of carbon fiber around your flight controller.
If you have a relatively long term contract, you can also consider investing in a fixed wing drone.
When flying near power-lines, interference is going to spike up at certain points. So, how can you determine these points? That’s right. You will also have to invest in a Spectrometer. Using a Spectrometer will help you determine these points of interference. And, you can switch bands in order to deal with this interference or noise. You can get a wide frequency Spectrometer for around $1,000.
It is important to differentiate between a Thermal and Thermal Radiometric camera. So, for instance, you can opt for the DJI Zenmuse XT or the DJI Zenmuse XTR. The XTR stands for XT Radiometric. The XT-R is professionally calibrated and lets you take a temperature reading of every single pixel on the screen. This results in really precise measurements.
Be aware of all rules and regulations
Line of sight restrictions is a huge deterrent to using drones for power-line inspections. If the FAA were to come up with a systemic approach of granting Part 107 waivers, this would really give a fillip to aerial drone inspections in the utility sector.
“We’d like to see some easing of the line-of-sight restriction,” says John Sowers, San Diego Gas & Electric’s vice president of electric distribution operations. But even with that limitation, he says, drones offer advantages “because you don’t have to climb each pole to look at the equipment.”
Before doing power-line inspections, make sure that you are aware of all regulations pertaining to flying near critical infrastructure.
Doing power-line inspections with drones is literally like walking on a thin wire. You CANNOT afford to make a mistake. And, when you do make a mistake, the ramifications are huge.
Do you have the necessary skills to take up such jobs? Do you have the necessary equipment in place? These are some questions that you need to ask yourself before venturing into this field. How do you make sure that your interests are taken care of? Make sure to read the contractual fine-print. Think of the worst case scenario, and make sure that your contract protects you.
UAS operators who do manage to achieve desired results in this challenging field stand to net substantial gains. Utility companies are simply not adept at building their own teams. And there is a huge market gap, waiting to be exploited for skilled and deserving UAS operators.