When substantial shifts in electricity demand occur, the operational capacity of the electrical grid is tested.In response, utilities are strengthening their field maintenance measures. Beyond quickly responding to reports of downtime, they’re increasing proactive asset inspections to catch anomalies before they become issues.
PrecisionHawk is part of this nationwide effort. PrecisionHawk’s drone operators are in the field today, performing transmission, distribution, and substation asset inspections. Unprecedented conditions have put their rigorous safety training to the test. And we’re daily tackling unique challenges as we ensure their well-being while they work to help utilities keep the lights on for America’s essential services.
Safety is paramount—for employees and customers.
Traditional ground inspection methods are hazardous, even under normal circumstances. Inspecting power distribution and transmission infrastructure—lines, poles, transformers, and other components of the electrical grid—requires workers to traverse difficult terrain, climb structures, and work in close proximity to high-voltage equipment. Though strong safety management systems can mitigate risks, it’s impossible to eliminate them. And complying with safety systems requires added time, which is precious in urgent situations.
“During unforeseen periods of high demand, we’re often asked to increase periodic inspections for our utility clients, or to conduct additional emergency-response patrols,” says Bill Hanrahan, Vice President of Data Collection at PrecisionHawk. “In recent weeks, we’ve already seen this occur in places of high demand, like California, where utilities are deploying flight teams to conduct critical asset inspection.”
By partnering with PrecisionHawk to implement a drone-based inspection program, utilities significantly improve conditions for workers by keeping them on the ground, out of harm’s way, and at home where they can analyze inspection data to identify problems before they emerge.
“Safety is paramount,” says Hanrahan. “Drone-based data collection reduces the risk of accidents, and dramatically reduces the severity of accidents, should they occur.”
Downtime is not an option.
“In the last two weeks, we’ve mobilized more than 50 flight teams,” says Hanrahan. “We’re responding to mission requests from our utility partners within 24 hours, deploying flight teams that collect and deliver the aerial intelligence that enable our clients to keep the power grid optimized before any issues may emerge.”
PrecisionHawk’s drone operators—including thousands of in-network pilots across the country—fly hardware that is purpose-built for accurate data collection in rugged terrain, wet environments, and high-wind conditions. A typical sensor payload—the data collection hardware equipped to a drone—can include leading optical, infrared, and even LiDAR sensors.
This platform technology yields precise, high-quality data that’s ready for analysis. Utility engineers can conduct this analysis on their existing information systems. Alternatively, some are using PrecisionAnalytics, our cloud-based platform where teams can view, analyze, and report on the health of their asset network. Today, they’re using insights from drone-based GIS data to decide how to allocate resources to high-priority repairs or plan maintenance.
Our flight teams follow standard procedures which dictate that critical anomalies, such as broken or missing hardware or overheating transformers, be reported immediately from the field.
“The data collected by drones is more detailed, it’s higher resolution, and it’s collected from vantage points that are closer and lower to the assets than traditional methods of inspection,” says Hanrahan. “With the combined perspective of a drone inspection team walking the line and the drone capturing accurate aerial data, the result is actionable intelligence in real-time, because downtime is not an option.”
Partnering to keep the lights on.
“Utilities are adept at dealing with times of crisis,” says Matt Tompkins, Director of LiDAR and Project Requirements at PrecisionHawk. “They often don’t get a lot of credit for this, but they ought to be commended for their preparation and ability to respond.”
Tompkins, alongside many PrecisionHawk flight operators, has first-hand experience responding to emergencies. He led flight teams during Hurricane Florence recovery efforts, partnering with a regional utility company to identify the areas most affected by the hurricane. Tompkins and his team aided utilities in serving their most damaged assets first and cutting downtime to their customers.
“Responding at times of critical need is often the most rewarding work for a pilot,” says Tompkins. “Our teams in the field feel the same way—they take ownership of the missions and feel pride in ensuring the grid is up and running.”
“We are aviators, and we treat every mission with respect,” says Tompkins. “For example, a traditional aircraft pilot doesn’t think about firmware updates when he hops in the plane, but we think about this—and every other safety procedure—when we’re planning a mission.”
PrecisionHawk follows robust standard operating procedures and safety management systems, including a series of checklists and risk assessments completed before every mission. In recent weeks, PrecisionHawk has collaborated with utilities to bolster safety standards for drone operators and inspection teams to keep personnel out of harm’s way.
“In partnering with our clients to respond at times of critical need, it’s my duty to our flight teams and our clients to coordinate travel, meals, lodging, and inspection schedules to place teams in less densely populated areas and ensure they can conduct thorough, rapid inspections,” says Hanrahan.
“We’re hearing from clients that we’re an essential part of the process—providing the accurate and timely data they need to modify the power grid to meet the demands of their state’s mandates and federal regulations to keep the lights on in America.”