DEED program funds projects tied to drones, infrared technology

The American Public Power Association’s Demonstration of Energy & Efficiency Development program has funded several projects in recent years related to the use of drones, along with infrared and other types of imaging technology, for inspections of utility infrastructure.

In 2019, public power utilities in Ohio and New York will utilize DEED grants to pursue drone research projects, while public power entities in the Southeast have participated in DEED-funded projects completed in 2017 that explored best practices for implementing drones into established utility workflows and exploring the value proposition of using drones.

[This is the second of two articles examining the use of drones, infrared cameras and other technologies by public power utilities to proactively address potential equipment failures on their transmission and distribution systems before they lead to outages or other operational issues. The first article was published in the Jan. 9 issue of Public Power Daily].

Current DEED projects

With respect to current projects, through a $54,900 DEED grant, the City of Westerville, Ohio, Electric Division will work on a drone turnkey solution project that will involve research, testing and analysis with the anticipation that, in two years, the utility will be able to share the practices it develops through this pilot demonstration with other public power utilities.

Public power utilities will have “comfort in knowing that a fellow public power utility completed the extensive work to prepare a solid recommendation for implementation.” It is the goal of the City of Westerville – Electric Division to offer suggestions to other utilities so that, more public power utilities may utilize this new technology to serve customers efficiently, reliably and safely,” the project description notes.

The final product offered through the project (Jan. 1, 2019 start date) will be for public power utilities that are interested in a drone program and/or routine inspection, vegetation management, infrared inspection program to efficiently and safely evaluate storm damage and store and retrieve updated GIS. The total project budget is $90,000.

Staff will conduct research to determine the best possible specifications for a drone, software, software integration, if needed, and training components. 

Staff hypothesizes needing several capabilities including, among other things, a durable and rugged drone; 12V charging capability; infrared camera and gimbal (locking camera in position or rotation) and dedicated control, first person view equipment and cameras that may be controlled separately from flight controls.

Meanwhile, the New York Power Authority has received a $125,000 DEED grant for a drone-related project that has a Feb. 1, 2019 start date. The total budget for the project is $415,000.

The project will integrate LiDAR technology into an existing in-house drone program for performing inspection of transmission rights of way for vegetation management. This inspection process will be developed alternative to NYPA’s current process, which involves contracting specialized companies to perform LiDAR inspections.  

In its DEED grant application, NYPA noted that LiDAR technology is still relatively expensive, but said that integrating LiDAR technology with a current in-house UAS program could leverage the positive aspects of the program to these periodic specialized inspections to gain long-term efficiency and value.

 LiDAR technology allows for the generation of 3D maps or models of an area using laser pulses projected at the Earth’s surface, and a comparison of environmental changes over time.

The project will determine the best pairing of LiDAR technology with drone technology to meet the needs of the power utility industry through equipment research, field testing and process development. The chosen equipment will be integrated into NYPA’s current work processes and will focus on long-term efficiency and value, and greater scheduler flexibility.

Completed DEED-funded projects

Alabama public power utility Huntsville Utilities was the recipient of a DEED grant in 2016 for a project related to unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Huntsville Utilities completed a final report for the project in late 2017. UAS are also referred to as drones.

The DEED grant sought to explore the best practices for implementing UAS into established utility workflows. “Through a series of flight operations supporting utility inspections on water towers, right of ways, and infrastructure we have documented the benefit of these aircraft and determined several useful and cost-effective tools that can improve efficiency and safety within a utility organization,” the project report said.

Participants in the project were Huntsville Utilities and Avion Unmanned Solutions.

The scope of the project involved six separate flight operations at Huntsville Utilities job sites in conjunction with aircraft operated by Avion Unmanned. The flight operations sought to replicate typical inspections for water towers, infrastructure (substations), and right of ways. The six flight operations were conducted over the course of the summer and fall of 2016.

The location selected for the infrastructure inspections was a substation within the downtown Huntsville area jointly operated between Huntsville Utilities and the Tennessee Valley Authority. Only the Huntsville Utilities equipment was inspected for this operation.

The initial inspection consisted of three hours on-site utilizing a dual-operator aircraft equipped with a zoom camera and a Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR) camera. The goal was to determine the best methods of traversing the site and collecting necessary imagery of switches, transformers, connections, bushings, and other typical transmission and distribution equipment.

Much of the equipment obstructed from a ground view was clearly visible from an aerial perspective, and the pilot and visual observer were able to safely manage the overhead hazards presented by transmission and support wiring.

“The aerial view was so effective, that an issue identified only a few minutes into the event using the FLIR sensor resulted in a brief halt in flight activities to address and replace the damaged part before continuing the operation,” the report noted.

FLIR imagery proved to be very useful for the operation, immediately highlighting areas of interest or concern for further inspection. Results were verified using RGB imagery with the zoom camera.

The project resulted in a UAS Best Practices Guide to help utilities develop policies and procedures for the use of unmanned aerial systems.

ElecriCities of North Carolina Inc. participated in a DEED-funded project, “Building a Business Case for UAS Use in Public Power Operations.” A related final report was completed in 2017. The project received a $75,000 DEED grant.

ElectriCities serves more than 1.2 million people in North Carolina public power communities, including 32 members of the N.C. Eastern Municipal Power Agency and 19 members of N.C. Municipal Power Agency #1.

The objective of the project was to explore the value proposition of using UAS to support the operation and maintenance of municipal power distribution systems. The project consisted of multiple phases over the funding window.

The final report noted that commercial off-the-shelf options at the time of writing the report (spring 2017) “were found to be quite effective for preventive maintenance missions.” The systems are easy to fly and basic flight control can be quickly mastered by a beginner pilot, the report said.

“Piloting the system was found to be easier when taking color images compared to thermal images because it was easier to determine current direction and speed from the color video,” the report said. Flight tests showed that high quality images could be captured and that color pictures could be taken that allow for component identification and aid system mapping. “Color images also allow for immediate right-of-way assessment,” the report said.

“Thermal imagery allows for the identification of component failures before they become a larger problem. However, future research is needed to understand the extent that image post-processing can be used to ease the identification of component failures,” the report added.

“Based on the analysis in this report, it is our recommendation that multi-rotor UAS solutions are a viable technology option that should be incorporated for both preventative maintenance and damage assessment.”

For more information about the DEED program, click here.