How drones are powering the future of utilities
Drones have so much to offer the utility industry. Possibilities are immense. These versatile flying robots are poised to improve operational efficiency, reduce costs, minimize service disruption, enhance security, improve safety, and revolutionize site surveys. After all, they can quickly and easily get into areas that would be costly, difficult or dangerous for humans to reach to collect intelligence without anyone getting in harm’s way.
Combining drones with emerging technologies such as edge computing (edge) and artificial intelligence (AI) opens up many additional possibilities. And with the utility industry currently at a point where it is increasingly testing and deploying drones, now is a good time to explore both the opportunities and challenges drones might bring – especially in combination with edge and AI.
Before we explore those, I’d like to take a look at the drone itself in more detail.
What do we mean by a drone?
Essentially, a drone is a flying robot with two basic functions: flight and navigation. In technological terms, a drone is an ‘unmanned aircraft’ that you might more formally refer to as an ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ (UAVs) or ‘unmanned aircraft systems’ (UASes).
Drones can have different levels of flight autonomy, from full automation using software and onboard sensors to remotely controlled aircraft that require a human to guide them. They can have one or multiple rotors or be fixed-wing, and they can carry sensors for collecting a wide variety of data types: cameras for collecting images, video or geographic data, or chemical sensors, for instance.
While drones’ beginnings lay with the military, uses are now much broader; beyond surveillance, mapping, and delivery applications, drones are used in search and rescue, disaster response, asset protection, weather, and wildlife monitoring, firefighting, healthcare, and agriculture. Drones are also popular with consumers as a recreational gadget.
A broad range of use cases
In essence, drones use cases can be segmented into: entertaining and recording; protecting and inspecting; evaluating and managing; and delivering and transporting., for photography, racing, and acrobatics, among other things.
Some of the typical use cases the E&U industry is exploring include:
- Checking power lines, hydroelectric dams, pipelines, solar panels or wind turbines;
- Inspecting vegetation along transmission and distribution lines;
- Pinpointing leaning, sagging wires or broken insulators during or after an emergency;
- Monitoring for criminal activity, vandalism or potential security threats;
- Mapping the orientation of solar panels to maximize energy output;
- Scoping sites for new transmission lines, pipelines, dams, solar farms, and wind farms;
- Carrying out wildlife inventories to reduce impacts on protected species;
- Calculating volumes of stockpiled fuel at power plants.
Combining with edge and AI
Drones are capable of creating incredible volumes of data, from the camera, sensors and the almost limitless types of equipment they can carry. Before that data can be processed and analyzed, the drones must transmit it across a network – a network that will almost certainly have bandwidth and connectivity limitations. With that, companies are currently only able to exploit a very small proportion of the data that their drones produce.
Edge computing promises to change that by giving the drone compute capabilities. The drones then become connected edge devices able to process and analyze the data for themselves. This model reduces not only network bandwidth requirements but also network latency.
Combine the edge model with groundbreaking technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, and we have a smart drone that can respond to what it finds in near-real-time. Imagine fully autonomous utility inspection drones able to detect and identify defects or malfunctions earlier, without any need for human assistance.
One example might be inspecting damage in a remote service territory after a storm. With intelligence onboard, the drones can quickly determine what critical infrastructure the storm has damaged. This insight would help utility managers to make quick decisions about which crews and skillsets were needed and where to carry out the most urgent repairs.
While drones have a lot to offer E&U companies, there are some significant challenges ahead, dilemmas around privacy, security, and safety.
From a privacy standpoint, voyeurs and paparazzi have used drones to obtain images of individuals in private locations, including their homes. From a safety perspective, drones have been deployed in urban areas where midair collisions or loss of drone control could lead to untold injuries. Drones have also opened up a new opportunity for terrorists, such as the recent attack on an oil plant in Saudi Arabia. They have also been used to disrupt flights at airports.
These concerns prompted calls for regulation. The future of these flying robots in the utility sector hinges on regulation.
While E&U companies have started using drones for specific short-range tasks, the greatest opportunities will come with using autonomous drones for longer-range tasks, tasks that take them out of sight of their operator. Out-of-sight droning is set to be the next frontier for grid operators with their miles of pipes and pylons to inspect. A drone flying along a gas grid can detect methane leakage, while along a powerline it can map the lines, the health of the cable, and the vegetation on either side.
While flying drones ‘beyond-line-of-sight’ is largely prohibited because of safety concerns, European watchdogs have granted special permits to allow utilities to test prototypes. The US is looking at doing the same.
E&U companies need to consider their plans for drones, edge computing, and artificial intelligence. These are just some of the technologies emerging today that will be essential for their future success – technologies that also bring new challenges that utilities must overcome.
Our Journey 2022 ‘Resolving Digital Dilemmas’ publication, researched and written by the Atos Scientific Community, sheds light on how utilities can develop strategies to resolve the E&U digital dilemmas emerging today.