EPRI tests ‘drones’ to help utilities restore power, shorten outages

February test flights directed by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in Alabama of prototype unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and payloads of video and other sensing equipment indicate that such “drone” technology could be deployed to assess damage to electric transmission and distribution (T&D) systems following storms.

The flights tested two “rotary winged” devices and payloads that weighed less than 55 pounds and operated at altitudes under 100 feet. Payloads included high-resolution video and digital cameras that transmit in real time information that utility system operators could use to assess the condition of power lines and related equipment.

The devices may provide more timely and accurate power line damage assessments in the wake of major storms. This should help to deploy crews more efficiently and to restore electric service more quickly.

“The test flight results are an important step in determining whether UAS technology can be deployed to improve the accuracy and timeliness of utility storm damage assessment,” said Matthew Olearczyk, program manager for distribution systems research at EPRI. “The images and videos from these flights clearly show the potential of these combined technologies. Continuing research will better determine which combinations of aircraft and payload could offer the best results.”

EPRI tested an Aeryon Scout and the Adaptive Flight Hornet Maxi, which are both rotary wing systems. These UAS technologies performed visual inspection tasks including high-resolution imaging of electrical system components.

Olearczyk noted that beyond aircraft and payloads, significant work lies ahead in integrating the data and information generated by the UAS with utility operations. “There is some really important work ahead in creating seamless interfaces with utility information technology systems, as well as the rapidly developing field force technologies, such as tablet computers, that some utility work crews are now carrying into the field,” said Olearczyk.

EPRI directed the flights under a certificate of authorization granted to New Mexico State University by the Federal Aviation Administration at the Southeastern Equipment and Technology Advancement Center. The research team plans to use findings from these first flights in a round of test flights tentatively scheduled for later this year, after receiving authorization from the FAA.

The testing was witnessed by several entities including two utilities and the FAA while the UAS platforms were flown by the NMSU Technical Flight Team.

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