The future of high-tension power line inspections using UAS
The millions of miles high tension lines in the US are very time consuming and dangerous to inspect. These lines need yearly inspections and currently the only reliable method is via helicopter or very slow moving “line bots.” That’s all about to change in the near future.
Line bots started to enter the market back in 2005, with some of the first ones being used to ensure grid safety and integrity. These machines are great for a high accuracy read of an area, but move very slow and have to be reset in between every line insulator.
While both of these technologies are great, they can not cover a large area of inspection in a short amount of time and at a reasonable cost. UAV systems can fill this gap using RGB/LIDAR, thermal, Infrared (medium wavelength) and electromagnetic sensors to detect bad sections of wire, insulators and damage to towers. The good news is these systems are getting smaller, more affordable and safer every day. It will not be long before we have the ability to gather data on these lines at a moments notice to ensure the safe operation of our aging power grid. Ideally combining manned and un-manned technology to do work for us is the way to go, only dispatching the manned operations when need be and using the UAVs to do the bulk of the work saving untold amounts of money, time and lives.
The big question is: Can it be done now?
The answer is yes, but it will require a lot of work from all parties involved. There have been some tests made with UAS and line inspection over the past few years with some good results in foreign countries, but the US has a ways to go to catch up.
The UAV Industry will have to buck up and figure out how to certify air-frames, avionics and GPS units for use in these critical areas in the US. Another consideration is applicable training to pilots and operators in this field.
Airspace knowledge is great, but more importantly we need to have operators who understand how the job is done, in a safe manner. Finally the last and biggest elephant in the room is the regulations, which currently only work to hinder innovation in the UAV world and safety in the manned aviation world. To date there have been NO instances where a UAV made a job less safe that is currently done with manned aircraft.
From an operational standpoint the initial capital investment is high, but the long term costs are low. Another consideration is the rapid development of UAV systems: the sensors and payloads will stay the same but the technology will evolve over the next 3-5 years until it plateaus. Battery technology is also ever evolving, and will only get better over the next 3-5 years making for longer flights.
Experimentation with small UAS have returned limited results to date as an issue with short battery life and camera resolution/lens options has proven inefficient until recently. Here’s a test video from Naturaldrones – a company that’s specializing in exploring this new technology: