New rules proposed by the Obama Administration could open unmanned flight to a variety of commercial uses, ultimately embracing a future where the small aircrafts help maintain power distribution lines, tend to crops or deliver packages.
But the potential to use drones technically, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) has been a subject of interest in the utility industry for years. It's a natural fit when utilities spend millions of dollars inspecting power lines which are elevated and often run in hard-to-reach places.
Every time we fly [in a helicopter], it's about $1,200 to fly a mile, said Jamie Exon. The utility inspects more than 26,000 miles of transmission and distribution lines, but can purchase a drone for less than $20,000.
Exon manages the sole utility drone program in the United States. Last year San Diego Gas & Electric received a special airworthiness certificate from the FAA allowing the utility to research, test and train flight crews in a sparsely populated airspace in Eastern San Diego County.
We've started seeing the potential of using the aircraft. We've flown it on a 500 Kv line and have validated that even with that high energy it does not interfere with our aircraft, Exon said. The utility has completed a first phase of tests and will be purchasing larger drones capable of carrying more sophisticated sensors.
Exon is a drone enthusiast, but does not fly the utility's UAS because he not a licensed pilot. He said the utility has begun to see how their aircrafts can save time and money, and believes the research and regulation are moving ahead at an appropriate pace.
These vehicles allow us to fly across and looks at the tops of polls where it's normally very difficult, Exon said. Multiple lines, multiple miles. It's a significant amount of money each year, and that's not including the time, how long it takes versus how quickly you can do it with the UAS.
The vehicles themselves run about $6,000 and then the onboard systems and sensors can add another $10,000 to the price.
If we fly 10 miles, we've paid for the vehicle, Exon said. While the initial drones SDG&E used were outfitted with just simple cameras, newer systems could include high definition imaging, multi-spectral or thermal cameras or systems capable of mapping a three dimensional object.
Source: Utility Dive
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