ComEd Illinois Turns to Autonomous Drones for Public Utility Inspections 

Public utility ComEd supplies power to more than 4 million customers across northern Illinois – about 70% of the state’s population.  Like other public utilities, the company already relies on high-performance commercial drones to perform several roles, including inspection of power lines to assess storm damage and to enable field crews to restore power more quickly and efficiently.  In 2022, the company began using drones to eradicate invasive vegetation species that were choking its power lines and disrupting service.

Now, to save additional costs, ComEd wants to make all of its commercial drone inspection operations fully autonomous.

It’s a logical next step, eliminating the need for remote drone piloting and allowing ComEd road crews to focus exclusively on service calls and grid repairs.  And the company has found the perfect supplier for the job – San Mateo, CA-based Skydio, the nine-year old company whose state-of-the-art “drone-in-a-box” technology is taking the world (quite literally) by storm.

With drone-in-a-box, ComEd can house a Skydio drone in an outdoor container unit next to its power grid, then launch the aircraft on a pre-set schedule to conduct a pre-programmed inspection flight.  Once the inspection is complete, the drone returns to its field locker for self-storage and can even recharge its batteries automatically, making human intervention during any stage of its deployment unnecessary.

All of ComEd’s Skydio drones will be equipped with high-resolution camera and thermography tools as well as special sensors to minimize the danger of collisions and crashes. With these enhancements, the aircraft can maneuver closely to capture detailed data, images, and video of ComEd’s grids from all angles.  Using 3-D mapping and predictive analytics, these images can then be intensively reviewed to identify sources of equipment stress and likely power failures.

Thanks largely to Skydio’s sterling industry reputation, ComEd was able to convince the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to grant the company special regulatory waivers to conduct its inspection flights without remote pilots within a radius of several miles.  Only  a handful of other public grid companies have received similar Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) authority to conduct drone flights near state roads and federal highways where safety issues could come into play.

Naturally, ComEd officials are ecstatic about their latest breakthrough.

“This will help reduce our operations and maintenance costs while helping to identify potential problem areas and prevent power outages before they occur,” the company said in a press statement last week. “Remote, off-site flying capabilities will also maximize ComEd’s drone pilots’ efforts by limiting the time they are physically needed in the field.”

Implementation of ComEd’s new Drone Dock program will likely occur in several stages.  The company is currently field testing a single drone-in-a-box storage system near its Chicago headquarters.  A team of new drone pilots is being trained to use the new technology. Additional docks will be installed throughout ComEd’s service territory over the next two years.

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