There’s A New Role for Inspection Drones in Power Grid Management

Power grid inspections have emerged as a critical operational role for unmanned aerial aircraft.  Flying alongside electricity power lines, UAVs can speed the inspection process, slashing operational costs and minimizing the safety risk incurred by field crews.  Drones, equipped with zoom cameras and sensors, can also identify sources of sparking and fraying in power lines, allowing companies to anticipate and remedy problems before they worsen.

But drones can also play an important new subsidiary role in power grid management.  How?  By installing “magic balls” that can ensure a more consistent flow of electricity along power lines, enhancing energy use and further reducing the threat of power disruptions.

The sphere-shaped sensors, developed by Heimdall Power, a Norway-based firm, have already increased power-line capacity by 30% in parts of Europe.  And they’ll soon be coming to the United States, according to a story published January 12 in the magazine TCD.

How do the spheres perform their magic?  By measuring line temperature, current, and other key metrics.  Heimdall has also partnered with Switzerland’s Meteomatics, which has devised a way for more renewable power to be transferred into the grid.  Overall, because power lines are more efficiently utilized, users save money.

“By combining our [insights] with Heimdall Power, we’re offering companies a look into their real-time power-line capacities — something that a majority of energy grid companies have not had access to before. We’re looking forward to continuing our work together [in the U.S],” Meteomatics North America CEO Paul Walsh said last week.

America offers a huge market for implementing the new technology.  The country has about 160,000 miles of high-voltage lines and millions of miles of low-voltage ones, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.  And with grid operators increasingly worried about more blackouts in the coming years due to severe weather and peak demand hours, the ability to better measure and calibrate electricity flow is becoming essential.

Two grids – Great River Energy in Minnesota and a big utility in the Midwest – are among the first outfits to be monitored stateside, but dozens more may be lining up soon, officials predict.

Drones have no immediate role in the new technology, but their role in expediting the installation turns out to be essential. Heimdall officials say their drones can attach the magic balls to power lines in as little as two minutes.  If the work were to be done by field crews on cranes instead, the process might take hours, at enormous cost, and with a heightened safety risk.

In fact, some of the tallest lines are located in remote difficult-to-access areas beyond the reach of field crews.  The support role of drones is therefore essential to implementing the new technology, company officials say.

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