Sun, Sep 09, 2018 - Page 15 News List

Power firms look to drones to maintain grids, plants

Uncrewed aerial vehicles might inspect, and could even repair, power plants and grids in remote areas, saving lives and money

By Nathaniel Bullard and Claire Curry  /  Bloomberg Opinion

There are already 170,000 small, uncrewed aerial vehicles licensed in the US, and the US Federal Aviation Administration predicts another half-million more of them to be airborne by 2022.

Drones are everywhere, doing all sorts of things, including delivering hamburgers and beer to golfers. They are taking group photographs, scouting properties and being shot down by neighbors.

They are also competing, and the competition is serious. Lockheed Martin Corp has launched a US$2 million competition pitting human operators against artificial intelligence in races through obstacle courses at speeds of more than 128kph.

Tiny, sensor-laden electronics might sound like a game — but as Lockheed’s interest suggests, they should sound like business.

As the drone value chain improves — chip sets shrink, cameras become more advanced, machine learning techniques mature — it creates reasons to scale. At the same time, drone applications become ever more apparent.

Around the world, trillions of US dollars’ worth of industrial infrastructure is aging, while worker safety and terrorism concerns increase, and climate change increasingly strains power grids, manufacturing facilities, and oil and gas production.

Drones offer a cheaper and more effective way of monitoring infrastructure than traditional methods of sending workers to dangerous, remote terrain.

Drones are being used by grid companies to spot faults or overgrown foliage in transmission and distribution lines across the US.

Monitoring overgrowth is increasingly important in hot, dry areas increasingly prone to fire — such as in Northern California, where PG&E Corp might owe as much as US$17.3 billion in liabilities from last year’s fires in wine country.

Drones were also used by Duke Energy Corp to help restore power lines in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria knocked out 80 percent of the island’s electricity access.

Those threat-detection capabilities are money savers and power-restoration services can be literal lifesavers.

However, there is another set of services, more prosaic, but potentially just as significant, for the future: operations and maintenance.

New research from Bloomberg NEF (BNEF) assesses the economics of drone inspections in power plants, and oil and gas inspection.

At offshore wind farms, drone inspection might prevent significant failures resulting in downtime and lost revenues.

BNEF calculated that the use of drones on offshore wind farms in Europe could shave off more than US$1,000 per turbine per year in inspection costs — reducing the cost of producing electricity by 1 percent.

The same savings apply to solar farms, where drone inspection can lower costs even further, on a proportional basis.

As drones improve, so would the services that they can provide.

Drones that only collect video footage are limited to inspection.

With machine vision, enhanced sensors, and grabbing arms and probes, drones might be able to fix minor faults in wind turbines, clear away overgrown foliage and defend assets from intruders.

Advances in 3D vision and computational photography, cheaper communications networks, and lightweight batteries all promise to produce a drone that can fly for longer, act independently and replace dangerous or boring human labor.

The research also found that in-house drones are cheaper for inspection than third-party drone inspection as a service. Although in-house drone inspection requires upfront costs in training pilots and buying the drones, it has better economics than using a third-party service.

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