Drones and utility infrastructure inspections

One area in which drone technology has proved its usefulness since it arrived on the scene has been in the way it has made some jobs safer for humans, who previously have had to physically climb dangerous heights or dark pits to inspect utility or important company i, while putting their own well-being on the line.

Recently, we did cover the release of a report in Australia, which report the outcome of an investigation into the death of a helicopter pilot who lost his life when his plane crashed while he was stringing powerlines in the country. There was robust debate on whether it is now time to rope in drone technology for such kind of jobs, given that there are unmanned aerial vehicles that are big enough for the job now.

We have also covered how mining conglomerate Rio Tinto – faced with a global pandemic situation that called for social distancing protocols – had to turn to drone technology to carry out the work that was usually left for physical manpower in their mines; and how it all turned out so well.

Then there is Swiss company Flyability’s caged drone, which has been successful in venturing into hostile, confined and otherwise claustrophobic environments like underground tunnels and city drainage pipes.

Now, in the below report, open-source drone software company Auterion analyse their take and contribution to drone technology and workplace safety – with particular emphasis on utility infrastructure. Here the company has focused on drones inspecting electrical powerlines, but the solutions could work in inspections of other utility infrastructure anywhere; be it water or gas pipelines; railway lines or telephone lines (wherever they are still living).

And as an open-source software entity, Auterion’s drone solutions have the advantage of keeping every investment made on their platforms and translate it into users’ future workflows – even if users add different or newer airframes along the way.

That is one of the beauties of open-source drone ecosystems; endless choices supported by the same reliable foundation that is bigger than any one manufacturer or product.

But we digress; here is Auterion…

Utility companies oversee massive critical infrastructure networks, consisting of transmission towers, distribution poles, and substations that are all connected by power lines.  In the past, inspecting these critical assets that could span hundreds of miles was both expensive and time-consuming.

Now, utility companies are leveraging drone technology to quickly and efficiently collect visual data and utilise their personnel more efficiently.  Drones are increasingly more adopted for use by operators seeking streamlined operations with reduced risk, lower expenses, and scalable benefits.

Keeping inspectors safe

This type of remote inspection using drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), supports stable power grid performance while ensuring the safety of workers.  For instance, drones keep inspectors safely on the ground, away from hazardous situations where the risk of exposure to gasses, heights, or faulty lines can be fatal.

Drones also replace manual utility asset inspections at dangerous heights or difficult to access locations.  In remote areas, rough terrain can make walking or driving very slow and difficult.  Inspectors no longer need to rely on hand held cameras or climb poles, use bucket trucks, or deploy costly helicopters to capture necessary data.

Inspect and maintain

The maintenance of critical infrastructure, especially reliable electricity, have proven even more vital during the recent pandemic. Utilities must be operational and stable to support essential services ranging from hospitals to grocery stores all across the globe.

Drones equipped with advanced sensors and imaging technology allow inspectors to remotely perform a large variety of tasks, including detailed inspection of power lines and components, analysing vegetation encroachment, and digitising asset information. Predictive analytics layered onto drone data identifies infrastructure issues that need to be fixed so it never leads to catastrophic failures in the future.

Given the relatively low cost of drone inspections, many companies have increased their cadence of inspections. With more frequent inspections, utility providers improve maintenance efficiencies, optimize equipment purchasing and crew scheduling, and ultimately reduce costs.

To choose closed or open-source drone solutions

For a utility company that is beginning to develop its drone program or is evaluating their existing UAS fleets for scalability, choosing an open-source ecosystem is more important than ever. With a worldwide community supporting a code base, output is thoroughly reviewed and vetted. Consistent progress and improvements are achieved far more quickly than with proprietary software due to the collaborative and growing nature of an open ecosystem.

Adopting or upgrading to open source allows organisations to be free from the constraints of any single company’s product development decisions. Having access to abundant choices for airframe, sensors, etc. provides flexibility and assurance that critical operations are never again threatened to come to a grinding halt due to one single manufacturer’s geopolitical issues, leadership changes, manufacturing delays, or financial woes.


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