Big data and drones team up to keep the lights on

Storm damage repairs and preventative maintenance on power lines and trees are two of the most important tasks utility companies take on, requiring a large amount of time and budget. Currently, ground crews inspect assets manually or via helicopter, and then based on their observations, they’ll identify areas that need attention.

New technology on the horizon will help protect the grid from potentially dangerous storms and trees that pose a risk of falling. Affordable drone technology, coupled with big data software, is paving the way for a more detailed, holistic approach to storm damage assessment and utility maintenance.

Through the collaboration of Edison Electric Institute and Palo Alto-based drone service company Sharper Shape, the EEI Sharper Utility partnership was formed to fast-track long-distance commercial drone inspections of power lines in the U.S. Drone flights have already found their footing in Europe with help from Sharper Shape’s European affiliate and are looking to make an impact on the utility industries in the U.S. and the rest of the world.

Here’s a look at what’s possible as drones and big data are poised to revolutionize the utility industry.

Millions of data points can now be collected

Drones can gather vast amounts of data using 3D mapping technology called LiDAR on tens of thousands of miles of power lines. Drones equipped with surveying, infrared and thermal detection technology can identify insulators, transformers, trees and more at a much greater scale and lower cost compared to manual and helicopter inspections.

Drones can collect huge amounts of data right down to the individual tree and insulator level. For example, utility company PKS Sähkönsiirto Oy used drones to inspect 6 thousand miles of power lines in a heavily forested region of Eastern Finland, capturing 25 terabytes of data and 3 million images of trees and assets.

There is great power in the ability to pinpoint the exact location of every transformer and tree, as well to determine the species, height, volume, weight and growth pattern along a power line. Not only can this data be used by utility companies to determine what the current issues are, (such as a broken insulator or leaking transformer), it can also predict what might become a problem in the future.

For example, the data can forecast how quickly a tree will grow and become a falling threat to power lines. Each time a drone flies above the same tree, it adds more data to a self-learning algorithm, making growth predictions for that tree even more accurate.

Utility companies will know exactly where each corroded transformer is located, where each high-risk tree is planted and what parts of their infrastructure need to be repaired. They can use this data to help plan where their maintenance budget will be best spent.

Automated analysis of the data is the game changer

While drone inspections allow utilities to gather this data in a more cost-effective and thorough manner, the real value lies in the software that automates the data processing. Manually inspecting 3 million images is not an efficient or even feasible task. Rather than inundate utility companies with all of this information, the self-learning algorithms calculate and analyze the collected data. The current and potential problems are automatically identified and prioritized.

First, the software’s algorithm is able to classify each tree, based on what the tree looks like in the sensor data such as LiDAR and images. (See above.) From there, the software determines if any trees are too close to power lines and if any assets have corrosion or other concerns that need addressing—if so the area is flagged on the map. Finally, it will prioritize which issues are most important and which can wait until the next fiscal year and beyond.

With this information, electric power companies can make more efficient use of their resources to trim and remove trees or fix assets that pose no danger in the immediate future.

Drones are sparking a global revolution

European utility companies have already started using drones to inspect power line assets and trees. Before drones, many of the utilities were only using ground crew inspections. These flights have provided more comprehensive reports than some utilities have ever seen. Complete vegetation maps and high resolution images are stored on a secure cloud-based inspection tool for these European utilities to access for both planning and executing maintenance work.

Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the U.S. is working to fast-track drone regulations. The EEI Sharper Utility partnership is striving to make this happen by demonstrating and developing a concept of operations to support the case for long-distance drone flights for electric companies.

The power of big data and the reach and flexibility of drones make up the solution that the utility industry has been waiting for. Ultimately, the amount of information provided and the ability to automatically identify the most pressing problems along power lines will reduce costs for customers and improve reliability. Together, drone technology and big data analytics will help communities keep the lights on.

By Tero Heinonen