Utility-line contractors and other electrical contractors may soon be harnessing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or "drones" to boost profits. Drones are already being used by some electric utilities for aerial inspection of power lines and substations, and Lonny Simonian, a professor from California Polytechnic State, thinks utility-line contractors can provide the same service to power companies as outside vendors.
Simonian, who's working on a research project with Electri International and NECA on the use of drones in the utility construction industry, did two sessions on drones during Day 2 of the 2016 NECA Annual Convention in Boston. Also on the Electri International task force are the Utility Line Contractors Association, Trimble and Textron.
Simonian researched drones from DJI, 3D Robotics and Yuneec and said contractors can buy a commercial-grade drone and camera for under $5,000. The cost would be higher if they want to use drones to do thermal imaging of equipment with thermal imaging cameras mounted on drones. He said commercial drones can fly from 15 minutes to 40 minutes, can only fly up to 400 ft in altitude, and must stay away from airports, power stations, prisons and other facilities restricted by the FAA.
San Diego Gas & Electric and Duke Energy now use drones to inspect for rotted power poles, damaged insulators, switches, fused disconnects and arcing or potential hot spots (using thermal imaging cameras). Simonian said they can be used in any application where an aerial view for inspection is advantageous and believes they will cut down on the costs and safety issues associated with sending workers up in buckets or other platforms for visual inspection.