Wind turbines can reach huge heights. Solar farms take up large swaths of land. Distribution equipment is sometimes located in remote areas. Utility infrastructure is also, by its nature, spread out across large distances so it can transfer energy from power plants to homes and businesses. This often makes inspecting, maintaining and installing this equipment an expensive endeavor.
Drones, however, have proved to be beneficial to the energy industry because they can complete inspection, maintenance and installation tasks remotely. Here are four areas in which companies across the energy sector are using drones to reduce their costs.
Monitoring and Inspections
Using drones to conduct both regular and ad hoc inspections can significantly reduce costs. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can inspect many different kinds of energy sector infrastructure, including power lines, substations, pipelines, wind turbines, solar panels and offshore oil rigs.
Drones can complete most inspections much more quickly than human workers can. In one experiment, a drone completed in two hours an inspection of a solar field that took a crew two days. UAVs can inspect 5-6 miles of transmission and distribution equipment per day and check a substation in less than an hour. Cutting days off inspections can save energy companies substantial amounts of money.
Using an unmanned vehicle also eliminates the safety risks involved with human workers conducting certain types of inspections, such as those involving heights. Reducing these risks indirectly reduces the costs of performing these checks.
Drones can conduct a range of inspection types by using different sensors. They can take high-quality photo or video footage, or you can equip them with other sensors. Infrared cameras, for example, can scan solar panels for hotspots that indicate diminished performance. Visual inspections can uncover everything from overgrown vegetation around power lines to damage to a wind turbine from a lightning strike.
In addition to conducting inspections, UAVs can also perform some basic maintenance tasks. A Latvian startup called Aerones builds drones that can clean, de-ice and apply coatings to wind turbines.
Debris such as dust, bugs and bird droppings, as well as the buildup of ice, can reduce the efficiency of turbines. The Aerones drones spray down the turbines to remove this buildup. You can also use them to apply a coating to turbines that helps prevent the accumulation of debris.
Deploying drones to complete these maintenance tasks enables companies to complete them much more quickly and reduce their costs, as well as increase worker safety.
Planning and Construction
Energy companies are also using UAVs in the planning and construction phases of projects. Drones can collect a range of information about a site that can be used to create detailed maps and topographic models. Gathering information via drone makes surveying potential project sites a much easier and faster process.
Solar company SunPower is using drones to map out solar farm sites and create optimal layouts for panels. Using these maps, engineers test different layouts and try to increase the number of panels that can fit on a site. This enables the company to produce more electricity from one project and increase their revenue.
Drones can also play a role during the construction phase. Unmmaned flyovers of a site can assist with progress reporting, quality control and construction logistics, resulting in a more efficient worksite.
Drones can also assist with the hazardous, resource-intensive work of storm restoration. After a large weather event hits, utilities must survey the damage and begin making repairs to restore power as quickly as possible.
Conditions can be hazardous after a storm due to flooding, damaged buildings and downed power lines. Sending out crews is dangerous as well as time-consuming. Using drones instead can increase efficiency and reduce hazards associated with the operation. Having a comprehensive overview of the damage can also help companies plan their responses and get power back on more quickly.
Duke Energy became one of the first utilities to use drones for power restoration in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. It used them not only to look for damage and find safe routes to access infrastructure but also to string up power lines.
These aren’t the only ways in which energy companies are using drones, and they’re continually coming up with more applications. Drones could become a significant influence on cost for the energy sector in coming years.
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