Long-distance drones are now being used by utilities around the world, according to a new report from Reuters. Unmanned aerial vehicles are becoming a regular presence within utility fleets, as they allow the companies to inspect miles of power lines and pipelines.
According to Reuters, the largest gas utility in Europe (Snam in Italy) is piloting a long-distance drone to inspect pipelines. RTE in France has also conducted tests, and announced plans to invest $5.6 million in drone technology over the next two years.
The use of drones has really picked up since ConocoPhillips conducted the first drone flight in commercial airspace in Alaska in 2013. Many utilities going this route are using drones to replace helicopter inspections and other traditional methods, accomplishing a week’s worth of work in a day or so. Baltimore Gas & Electric began piloting drones earlier this year, which would replace the company’s practice of having utility workers climb poles or use binoculars. Prior to drones, Westar Energy used a similar method – relying on utility workers armed with a bucket truck and a pair of binoculars.
In 2016 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) passed a rule that allowed utilities to use drones without a waiver, leading to increased adoption across the industry. The lower barrier to entry has made it easier for utility companies to test drones and see whether they were a good fit for operations.
This growing trend will also affect the way utilities plan for the future. Earlier this year, an N.C.-based electric utility donates $10,000 to a local college, allowing the school to develop a utility-based drone program. It also sent its line technicians to drone training, which will aid the company in inspecting its 600 miles of power lines.