Drones Take off for Utilities

By Jeremiah Johnson, 3DR

Site Scan drone in use

Aug. 29, 2016, marked a historical day for the drone industry as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) enacted the first operational rules for routine non-hobbyist use of drones. Named Part 107, the regulations allow anyone who passes the remote pilot certificate exam to legally fly drones for commercial purposes. By implementing Part 107, the FAA encouraged the notion that drones represent true value to a number of commercial industries.

Electric utility companies like St. Louis-based Ameren Corp., wasted no time taking advantage of new FAA rules. The reasons for that are two-fold. First, the value Ameren sees in applying new technology within day-to-day workflow aligns with the company’s core principles of delivering services with safety, speed and efficiency. Second, to remain competitive in a market that PwC’s 2016 Utilities Industry Trends report says will quadruple by 2020 and reach $6 billion worldwide, innovation is a necessity.

Enter Drones

Traditional activities performed by utilities organizations include line inspections and maintenance, storm damage assessment and more. These assessments were at one point performed by helicopters and third-party inspection services. Not anymore. With tight profit margins and safety an utmost concern, drones ensure both efficiency and situational awareness, as well as the ability to identify easily avoidable problems on the horizon, such as loosening electrical cables, missing screws and more.

Ameren uses Site Scan to obtain new insights of their assets

“With our drones, we might be able to go somewhere really high up, like a 200 -foot communication tower, and spare the need to send one of our guys to manually climb up there for inspection,” said James Pierce, Ameren’s UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) technical lead. “With drones, we can quickly get the shots of the sites we need, which then gives us a full view of the conditions we’re up against and we can plan accordingly.”

Ameren’s use of drones has helped leaders keep a finger on the pulse of site activity at all times. It also keeps the companies more than 8,500 personnel regularly in proactive rather than reactive mode. For example, rather than waiting for an inspector to notify the team of a trip on a line between structures, site leaders can instead use “re-fly” features to set up routine inspection flights to capture and remedy issues before they grow in cost and resources.

“Our whole goal with our drones is not having to react in the future,” said Robert Kennedy, project manager at Ameren. “Acting on things before they happen increases our reliability as well as the trust of our customers. At Ameren, our business values include integrity, respect and accountability, so the trust of our customers always remains a top priority for us.”

With the need to stay proactive also comes the need to be quick and efficient. Compared to older, more manual methods of data capture, Kennedy and his team now obtain the data they need from their drones more quickly. What once took a month now takes only a week. In addition, the data and images captured are sent to the drone’s web application in moments, which the Ameren UAV team can now use to quickly assess any issues and collaboratively develop preventative methods.

“With the web application, there are definitely more peoples’ eyes on the prize, which is super helpful,” said Kennedy. “Anytime we can get more people to look at something more quickly, it benefits us all in the long run and helps break everyone from working in a silo.”

Ameren’s mission is to lead the way to a secure energy future and to power the quality of life. By staying ahead of the curve and adopting technological methods that increase worker safety, improve speed and results, and ultimately foster a more collaborative, unified environment, the company stays true to its word that drones have helped its leaders stay committed to the values they were built upon.

“We are definitely putting our drones to work,” said Pierce. “They’ve brought a whole new level of service and collaboration to our business processes and we foresee them remaining an integral tool here at Ameren.”

Jeremiah Johnson is 3DR’s solutions architect, helping solve clients’ problems using drones as an aerial data acquisition platform. Before working with drones, Jeremiah was a geospatial developer responsible for developing QC software for electric transmission data collected via manned helicopter with LiDAR sensors. Jeremiah is located at 3DR’s headquarters in Berkeley, California.

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