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article imageUtilities in Europe to use long-distance drones for inspections

By Karen Graham     Jul 16, 2018 in Technology
European utility companies are looking at using long-distance drones to inspect thousands of miles of grids and pipelines for damage and leaks in an attempt to avoid network failures that cost them billions of dollars a year
Prototypes of BVLOS drones, so called because they travel "beyond the visual line of sight" of operators, are being tested by Italy's Snam, Europe's largest gas utility, and EDF's network subsidiary, RTE in France.
Snam told Reuters they have been doing field-testing with BVLOS drones in the Apennine hills around Genoa. It hopes to have it scouting a 20 kilometer (12.4 miles) stretch of pipeline soon.
RTE has also been testing a long-distance drone that have flown 50 kilometers (31 miles) inspecting transmission lines and sending back data that allowed technicians to create a virtual model of a section of the grid. RTE plans on investing 4.8 million euros ($5.6 million) on drone technology over the next two years.
The Ivorian Electricity Company (CIE) is using drones to revolutionise the inspection of its infrast...
The Ivorian Electricity Company (CIE) is using drones to revolutionise the inspection of its infrastructure
At the present time, utilities are using helicopters equipped with cameras for inspecting their power grids, and in some cases use "basic" drones that stay within the sight of operators for inspections. But this allows for a range of about 500 meters or about one-third of a mile.
The shift to renewables means better monitoring
Advanced drone technologies are needed for monitoring the added connections required for linking solar and wind parks to electrical grids. One of Spain's largest utilities, Iberdrola SA is making a 500,000 euros ($586,000) investment in startup drone maker Arborea Intellbird SL - banking on this advanced technology.
“It’s not about the money -- our objective is to learn as much as possible,” Agustin Delgado, Iberdrola’s chief innovation and sustainability officer, said in an interview in London. “That has a lot more value than the $70 million invested thus far.”
He was making reference to rival utilities, Centrica Plc, Fortum Oyj and EON SE, who have invested hundreds of millions in venture capital projects. Iberdrola is looking more at investigating new ideas.
Drones armed with sensors will be able to make asset inspections easier and quicker.
Drones armed with sensors will be able to make asset inspections easier and quicker.
GE Oil and Gas
"It's a real game-changer," Michal Mazur, a partner at consultancy PwC, said of drones, reports the Economic Times. "They're 100 times faster than manual measurement, more accurate than helicopters and, with AI devices on board, could soon be able to fix problems."
Right now, in-sight drones cost about 20,000 euros, but BVLOS drones will cost a lot more. And utilities won't need just one or two, but a fleet of dozens and even hundreds to inspect their networks.
Power companies are expected to spend over $13 billion yearly on drones and robotics globally through 2026. This is a big jump from the $2 billion spent yearly worldwide today, according to Navigant Research.
But even while $13 billion annually may seem like a huge chunk of money, it is dwarfed by the amount of money the sector loses every year because of network failures and forced shutdowns - about $170 billion, according to PwC.
The regulatory risks
With the need for advanced technologies in drones used for inspecting power grids, and this includes solar and wind farms as well as pipelines and electrical transmission lines and all the grid connections, the prototypes being tested not only have aircraft systems but can avoid obstacles, detect other flying objects - from helicopters to hang gliders - while mapping grids with thermal and infrared sensors.
But despite the safety built into the technology, these drones still have to comply with regulations. And that is what is holding up the greater use of BVLOS drones. Over the past year European watchdogs have granted special permits for utilities to test these drones, however, the European Commission still needs to come up with Europe-wide regulations.
This situation is mirrored in the United States. The FAA also has regulations governing BVLOS drones, and a special permit is needed to operate them. The FAA is looking to simplify and speed the process of winning such waivers, including by automating it. In April this year, Xcel Energy became the first American utility to gain approval for BVLOS flights.
More about Europe, Utilities, drone technology, Regulation, longdistance mapping
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