Allow drones to help turn the lights back on faster

Picture the scenarios. Hurricane Matthew rolls up the east coast and destruction ensues. Hundreds of thousands of customers find themselves without power. Safe and speedy restoration is a priority, and utilities reach out for mutual aid. Within a day, line crews are on their way and some are already starting work. As utilities restore power to customers, they come across many roads are left impassable by flooding.

In situations like this, utilities need to assess what's down and where to deploy workers, but often can't get people out to remote areas quickly enough. In some cases, the only option is a helicopter. For a large utility that owns transmission assets, a helicopter may be a viable option, but that's not going to fly [pun intended] for most smaller utilities. The use of helicopters also comes with its own risks.

We at the American Public Power Association have spent much time helping utilities coordinate power restoration through the public power mutual aid program and know there's no single and simple solution to getting good damage assessments. However, there is one promising technology — drones — that can help utilities in disaster situations get the information they need to deploy crews and equipment faster.

Back to our Hurricane Matthew scenario. Imagine that utility drones based near each substation take off as soon as the hurricane moves through. The drones are programmed to fly along each of the circuits and look for damage. Visual, thermal, and electromagnetic field sensing equipment on the drones allow fast damage identification and categorization. Right away, images of damage assessments start flowing to the utility that dispatched the drones. Images also are sent to assisting utilities for collaborative damage assessment and evaluation as part of mutual aid and disaster response coordination.

Drones have the potential to cut damage assessment time in half by helping utilities more accurately take stock of what equipment and supplies they need. As a result, power is restored to customers much faster.

Under current Federal Aviation Administration rules, drone operations are much more limited, requiring a drone-certified operator who operates the drone only within his or her line of sight and only during daylight hours. More expansive rules of operation are being awarded on a case-by-case basis.

These rules are overly restrictive because the FAA is concerned that rushing to integrate drones more fully into the national airspace will put others at risk. Safety is a priority for public power. But we know that drones can provide tangible benefits to save lives, support national defense, and supplement local flight operations.

As the FAA works to safely integrate drones into the national airspace, electric utility inspections and system restoration should be a priority area of permitted use.

Utility drones open up a world of possibilities. They can help lower costs and protect public health, safety, and security. We urge the regulators in Washington, D.C. to establish policies that allow safe use of drones by public power utilities."