Question: What looks like a bird, flies like a helicopter and sounds like a swarm of bees? Answer: A drone!
Drones, officially called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), are rapidly gaining popularity and being used in dozens of applications. They come in different sizes, from micro machines weighing around a half of a pound to supersized systems used by the military that can weigh thousands of pounds. Uses range from entertainment to national security purposes, and there are several different types of drones for long range, long (time) flights or if you prefer, you can get one that will just follow you.
More than 300 drones were used to form an image of the American flag in the night sky during the 2017 Super Bowl. Over 1,200 minidrones were used for impressive night sky images designed specifically for the opening of the 2018 Winter Olympics.
But companies also use them for security, deliveries or maintenance of equipment in hard-to-reach locations. The military for instance uses many sizes and has been flying them for years to help keep the United States, and those who defend it, safer.
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Though the technology is still relatively new, it is gaining ground. According to research firm Gartner, drone unit sales grew an estimated 60 percent in 2017.
At Santee Cooper, we are embracing this technology because it makes sense for us and our customers. Just what can drones do for an electric utility?
According to American Public Power Senior Vice President Michael Hyland, “Drones are a cost-effective and safe way to assess storm damage, survey equipment and support the construction and repair of the lines and equipment of public power entities.”
Santee Cooper is taking advantage of those benefits. We now have more than 12 drones used by areas like transmission, generation and station construction, and employees are making good use of the drone fleet. Those who fly the drones for the utility say it saves time, money, wear and tear on trucks and other large equipment, is better for the environment, and is in many ways safer for employees than other options.
Before we put the first drone in the air, we need skilled operators. Not all employees can fly a drone for Santee Cooper. In fact, drone operators have to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration.
“This technology is advancing and evolving very rapidly,” said Stephanie Vazquez, a risk management analyst for Santee Cooper. Vazquez works with employees to ensure that any drone that is flown for Santee Cooper is registered with the FAA and flown only by an FAA-licensed remote pilot. With rapidly changing restrictions for this aviation technology, staying compliant requires diligence.
Eddie Taylor and Brad Malone both fly drones for transmission operations and use DJI Phantom and Inspire drones. The Phantom has a mounted camera and weighs about 3 pounds, while the Inspire is larger and has a removable camera that they can change to an infrared camera, often used for search operations or finding overheating breakers and other equipment.
“These drones can provide visuals of areas we either cannot or should not access,” Taylor said. “Transmission rights of way often go through swamps or other areas with limited or difficult access. These drones provide up-close views of the condition of poles, wires, insulators and other hardware that may be damaged or in need of maintenance.”
Taylor has even used the drone to verify that spraying done by contract crews to kill growth in a right of way was effective.
Taylor and Malone often work in tandem, one operating the craft and one helping monitor and keep another set of eyes on the drone.
“This is another valuable piece of equipment, another tool in our toolbox that makes our job a little easier and safer in certain circumstances,” Taylor said. The two explain that you need to spend some time as an operator getting to know the particular unit you are flying, indicating each machine has its own personality.
They even have names for the two drones they fly and say "Maddie" is less temperamental than "Julie Ann." While Malone was flying the more temperamental Julie Ann, she began losing battery power so he sent her a command to fly home.
“Most drones can fly for about 20 minutes before needing a charge or battery change,” said Malone, who keeps several batteries with him. “The drone has a built-in signal that lets me know when the battery is running low and I can monitor that on the display and bring it back before it loses power.”
Both pilots are excited about the drones’ capabilities and their ability to improve maintenance on transmission lines and rights of way. Even with the need for extra battery power, flying the drones is a more cost-effective and safer alternative to driving trucks through rough terrain and having a line technician climb and inspect every pole. This also proves to be less invasive to environmentally sensitive areas.
Drone use in the rights of ways can also help protect wildlife and possibly the lives of employees. Bears, hogs, coyotes and other wild animals have been spotted, but from a safe distance with the use of drones. Malone said of all the animal sightings he has seen, his favorite may be the osprey. They have found and relocated nests or discovered where eggs or hatchlings were and left the nest there until the young are grown.
Transmission operations is not the only group benefiting from the use of drones. Santee Cooper’s generating stations Cross, Winyah and Rainey also use drones to provide a bird’s eye view of ash and slurry ponds, look for erosion around waste and stormwater ponds, and monitor coal piles. The drones can even help them inspect gas pipelines or damage to stacks and cooling towers after high wind events.
“During the flood of 2015, we used our drone to record damage to the coal pile and other plant equipment,” said Ged Moree, superintendent of operations at Winyah Generating Station. “The images not only helped us assess damage and react quickly to flood issues with the coal pile, it also provided images and information for insurance claims.”