A big step closer to practical drone technology for scouting power outages

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By: SGN Staff

One of them looks like a sleek, fairly straightforward radio-controlled helicopter and the other one looks sort of like it might be a lunar lander with propellers. They're the latest incarnations of the Electric Power Research Institute's (EPRI) research into using drones, also referred to as unmanned aerial systems (UAS), to evaluate damage to electric transmission and distribution systems after major storms.

 

The prototypes, the Aeryon Scout and the Adaptive Flight Hornet Maxi, are both rotary wing craft carrying high-resolution video cameras and digital cameras. They weigh less than 55 pounds and during tests were operated at heights less than 100 feet. They're designed to transmit real time assessments of power lines and other equipment that utilities could use to evaluate their condition. Flight tests directed by EPRI were conducted in Alabama earlier this month.

 

"The test flight results are an important step in determining whether UAS technology can be deployed to improve the accuracy and timeliness of utility storm damage assessment," said Matthew Olearczyk, program manager for distribution systems research at EPRI. "The images and videos from these flights clearly show the potential of these combined technologies. Continuing research will better determine which combinations of aircraft and payload could offer the best results.

 

EPRI also is working on integrating data and information gathered by the flying monitors with utility operations. "There is some really important work ahead in creating seamless interfaces with utility information technology systems, as well as the rapidly developing field force technologies such as tablet computers that some utility work crews are now carrying into the field," Olearczyk added.

 

EPRI researchers plan to use the results of the first flights in more test flights later this year after obtaining FAA approval.

 

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February test flights directed by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in Alabama of prototype unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and payloads of video and other sensing equipment indicate that such “drone” technology could be deployed to assess damage to electric transmission and distribution systems following storms.

 

The flights tested two “rotary winged” devices and payloads that weighed less than 55 pounds and operated at altitudes under 100 feet. Payloads included high-resolution video and digital cameras that transmit in real time information that utility system operators could use to assess the condition of power lines and related equipment.

 

The devices may provide more timely and accurate power line damage assessments in the wake of major storms. This should help to deploy crews more efficiently and to restore electric service more quickly.

 

“The test flight results are an important step in determining whether UAS technology can be deployed to improve the accuracy and timeliness of utility storm damage assessment,” said Matthew Olearczyk, program manager for distribution systems research at EPRI.  â€œThe images and videos from these  flights clearly show the potential of these combined technologies. Continuing research will better determine which combinations of aircraft and payload could offer the best results.”

 

EPRI tested an Aeryon Scout and the Adaptive Flight Hornet Maxi, which are both rotary wing systems.  These UAS technologies performed visual inspection tasks including high-resolution imaging of electrical system components.

 

Olearczyk noted that beyond aircraft and payloads, significant work lies ahead in integrating the data and information generated by the UAS with utility operations. “There is some really important work ahead in creating seamless interfaces with utility information  technology  systems, as well as the rapidly developing field force  technologies such as tablet computers that some utility work crews are now carrying into the field,” said Olearczyk.

 

EPRI directed the flights under a Certificate of Authorization (COA) granted to New Mexico State University (NMSU) by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) at the Southeastern Equipment and Technology Advancement Center (SETAC). The research team plans to use findings from these first flights in a round of test flights tentatively scheduled for later this year, after receiving authorization from the FAA.

 

The testing was witnessed by several entities including two utilities and the FAA while the UAS platforms were flown by the NMSU Technical Flight Team.

 

About EPRI

The Electric Power Research Institute, Inc. (EPRI, www.epri.com) conducts research and development relating to the generation, delivery and use of electricity for the benefit of the public. An independent, nonprofit organization, EPRI brings together its scientists and engineers as well as experts from academia and industry to help address challenges in electricity, including reliability, efficiency, affordability, health, safety and the environment. EPRI's members represent approximately 90 percent of the electricity generated and delivered in the United States, and international participation extends to more than 30 countries. EPRI's principal offices and laboratories are located in Palo Alto, Calif.; Charlotte, N.C.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Lenox, Mass.

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