How a Drone-Based Platform Significantly Improves Electrical Transmission Inspections

The following is an excerpt from our solution brief, Electrical Transmission Tower Lifecycle Management, where we explore how drone-based technology is leading to new levels of safety and efficiency in electrical transmission operations. Download the solution brief to learn more.

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The American grid is ever-expanding, with electric utilities continually adding more transmission towers to the hundreds of thousands that span the U.S.

For these utilities, improving asset management is paramount: accurate asset awareness reduces downtime, increases worker safety, and boosts competitiveness and profitability.

For a utility, asset management requires taking inventory of, inspecting, and maintaining thousands of transmission towers. The foremost method for doing this is deploying helicopters to perform comprehensive visual inspections (CVIs) and to inventory assets.

The problem: Using helicopters for inspections is expensive and dangerous.

When you’re inspecting a thousand miles of transmission, helicopter missions can become prohibitively expensive—making it more difficult to keep tabs on all of your assets frequently enough to catch damage before it leads to failure. And beyond cost, flying helicopters close to transmission towers and power lines is risky: fatalities are not uncommon in helicopter-enabled inspections, and wire strike safeguard devices provide only limited protection.


Besides the cost and risk, aggregating the data you collect into a single, standardized database can be messy, if not impossible.

To address these challenges, utility operators are turning to drone-based technology.

PrecisionHawk provides a drone-based electrical transmission tower lifecycle management solution that includes data collection, processing, and reporting in a streamlined manner. The resulting reports can be referenced directly to resolve issues. And data can be incorporated into asset management or enterprise resource systems to automatically prescribe action.

Through our work with some of the biggest utilities companies, we’ve seen results:

  • Less downtime due to unforeseen damage
  • Fewer helicopter missions
  • Higher accuracy: Drone-based CVIs uncover 42% more areas of concern (AOC) than ground-based and helicopter-based inspections can uncover
  • A 28% reduction in inspection costs
  • Faster fixes to issues and greater production per tower
  • Higher margin of safety

Collecting data

Transmission towers present a challenging operational environment for unmanned aircraft. After all, the assets may be located in windy or wet areas, and their power lines are difficult to maneuver around. However, our drones are purpose-built for such a challenging environment. They’re lightweight, but rugged, and include rotor blade guards to mitigate the damage that could occur on contact.

In addition to a standard visual sensor, our drone operators deploy leading thermal, LiDAR, and multispectral sensors. For manual inspections, high zoom is ideal, so PrecisionHawk pilots might use a camera with high combined optical and digital zoom. For capturing data that will be processed by machine intelligence, they use cameras with large sensors.

Operating flight software: PrecisionFlight

To execute missions, our pilots use PrecisionFlight. The software’s intelligent flight planning enables operators to deploy manual, semi-autonomous, and fully autonomous missions that comply with regulations and safety management systems.

A typical mission looks like this:

  1. Prior to a mission, the drone operator defines a flight plan by combining transmission tower specifications with 3D geospatial data, such as the surrounding terrain and no-fly zones.
  2. To identify potential issues, they emulate the flight in PrecisionFlight, setting additional boundaries as necessary.
  3. Once on-site, operators load the plan (no connectivity required), deploy the drone, and monitor it—using flight telemetry—as it automatically captures data along a precise flight path, predetermined by a set of waypoints.
  4. The drone captures imagery of all the components of the tower from a number of different vantage points. If issues requiring further inspection surface during autonomous flight, the operator can manually navigate to the area of concern.
  5. After the mission, the pilot can “replay” the mission to assess mission efficacy and optimize the flight plan.

While gaining a measure of asset conditions at a single point in time is useful, you can obtain greater insight by tracking trends over a given period. Using PrecisionFlight’s repeatable flight plans, operators are able to capture multiple data sets, from separate missions, that precisely correlate.

UgCs PrecisionFlight Pro on laptop with finger point (1)

Conducting safe and effective flight operations

Beyond flight software, the skills of your drone operators are critical to the safety and effectiveness of your drone-based inspections. The pilot in command must understand your objectives and follow rigorous procedures, regardless of whether they’re your own staff or PrecisionHawk’s experienced flight operators.

To meet these requirements, PrecisionHawk’s leaders—many of whom are former Navy Top Gun pilots—developed our industry-leading drone operating procedures:

  1. Mission Requirements: Understand the assets and area of interest to be inspected, and the specific requirements of the mission.
  2. Mission Readiness: Complete a rigorous training program for the complete mission lifecycle, from analyzing airspace around transmission towers to managing unusual asset configurations and weather patterns.
  3. Procedure: Follow flight standards, a comprehensive mission checklist, safety management systems, and incident protocols.
  4. Regulatory Compliance: Comply with guidelines, designed by our policy analysts, to limit regulatory exposure.
  5. Quality Assurance: Verify that the data meets quality requirements using PrecisionHawk’s offline field analysis tool; identify anomalies, omissions, and other issues prior to delivery.
  6. Data Secure Chain of Custody: Protect mission data by following secure transportation, transmission, and destruction protocols.
  7. Continuous Improvement: Engage in a continuous improvement plan, reporting lessons learned and applying them to future operations.

These are principles we require of all PrecisionHawk’s flight stakeholders. Whether they’re our 100-plus full-time pilots, the more than 15,000 pilots in our drone pilot network, or our clients’ own staff, we’ve designed our training regimen to help professionals of any background achieve this standard of excellence. And everyone, from program directors to visual observers, is responsible for maintaining discipline in the field.

A streamlined system of integrating data

After you collect data, you need a focused system for analyzing and processing it. Traditionally, inspectors store reports and imagery in a GIS data or manual file storage system. But these solutions can be messy and inaccessible, especially for non-technical stakeholders.

With our aerial intelligence platform, drone operators can upload data and imagery into PrecisionHawk’s cloud-based system, PrecisionAnalytics Transmission, which cross-references the uploaded imagery against thousands of terabytes of data, flagging issues.

Asset viewer - Transmission

PrecisionAnalytics Transmission features include:

  • Infrastructure Statistics: Get a comprehensive view of all your assets, including not only transmission lines but also distribution lines, wind turbines, and solar panels—either separately or all at once. Segment your health trends at the portfolio or site level: view rolled-up statistics on damage severity, issues, and other measures you identify.
  • Vegetation map: View an encroachment map overlaid on on a street map, or in a 3D point cloud model, to ensure the areas around assets are clear.
  • Transmission Tower at-a-Glance: Home in on problem areas, such as rust or a bent transistor. Review the overall health of transmission assets and navigate image sets using intuitive markers, color-coded for damage severity.
  • Detailed Views: View full-resolution imagery and zoom in on key issues.
  • In-situ Communication: Create and edit annotations and store metadata, such as the type of observation, your finding, the size of the issue, damage severity, and other parameters. Add comments to other stakeholders.
  • Historical Recordkeeping: Investigate the genesis of an issue. View historical imagery for the same location on the tower from prior inspections to identify potential precursors to the issue at-hand.

Typical issues that analysts identify using drone-based imagery include:

  • Cracked insulators
  • Corrosion
  • Vegetation
  • Structural issues
  • Missing and backed-out cotter pins

Assert detail panel - Transmission - AI

Our team of data analysts can produce these annotations or we can leave it up to you.

Actioning data

Once analysts have produced their findings, others need to take action. But how do you give cross-functional and external stakeholders the insights they need (without exposing them to the voluminous detail)?

PrecisionAnalytics Transmission’s flexible reporting and integration features enable you to distribute information across your organization—whether it be exporting an Excel and Word document or integrating with other software, such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and asset management systems. This allows for faster fixes to issues and therefore, greater production per tower.

By developing a workflow and communication protocol that maximizes the potential of your aerial intelligence, each of these tools will let you turn data into action. And in doing so, your stakeholders will benefit from the power of drones.

Put drone-based aerial intelligence to work

Partner with PrecisionHawk to create and deploy a drone-based solution in electrical transmission tower inspections. We’re replacing slow, dangerous helicopter inspections with drone deployments; hours of tedious image review with machine intelligence; and data overload with a focused system of reporting.

Download our full solution brief for more details on how you can use drone-based aerial intelligence in the electrical transmission tower lifecycle.

To speak with one of our consultants about our Electrical Transmission Tower Solution, contact us.