When considering the benefits of drones for the energy sector, they must be viewed in conjunction with a broad spectrum of emerging and disruptive technologies
Last year, global consultancy EY launched a worldwide network of innovation centres, dubbed EY wavespace, aimed at helping their clients to face the challenges and opportunities involved with continuous change, digitalization and disruption.
In addition to the firm’s 15 existing locations, the eight new centres on four continents are planned to feature a shared methodology and platform for testing ideas related to disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics process automation, blockchain, data analytics, digital, customer experience and cybersecurity.
One such technology that EY has already focused on is the use of drones, with projects lab-tested across industries including energy in conjunction with other disruptive technologies such as blockchain. We spoke with Thierry Mortier, EY Global Power & Utilities Innovation Leader, about what drones can offer the energy sector and how this offering is expected to evolve.
Q: What is the current state of drone use in the energy sector?
A: First of all, we can say that drones are a part of one aspect of the energy industry. Under the heading of robotics, which is a broad category, there are six other main categories including AI, automation and IoT. We see drones as a part of a very broad spectrum of emerging technologies.
You also need to see drones in connection with those technologies. Part of the use case or business case is related to the fact that you can have equivalents to helicopters or planes, but cheaper and faster without the pilot – that is one part. This delivers some benefit as you don’t need to have helicopter hours, fuel, pilots paid and so on. And a large part of the effect we see comes from the fact that drones can do more flights or inspections, and as such can create more data, and then through a number of these technologies such as AI, with automated processing of data, this can result in much higher efficiency than what we have seen before.
You need to not just look at the equipment as such, but at what you can do with it. The technology is there currently to do something with that data in a much more automated way. I’ve seen quite a lot of startups in this area, smaller companies that now have specific service offerings in that area. A lot of them, or a number of them, are actually focusing on what’s called the 80 per cent of non-critical assets.
Most non-critical assets in the past were monitored by helicopter flights and thermal imaging. [The industry is] now primarily focusing on trying to get efficiency in terms of maintenance costs and asset management solutions in these 80 per cent of non-critical assets. One startup in particular is specializing exactly in those drone solutions combined with data solutions. They’re able to, for example, perform vegetation management in more tropical areas in a very efficient way through a combination of flights, data generation and imaging, and this results in an alert system that allows people to take action just in those areas where there is vegetation growth around the lines.
We’re at the stage where the solutions are there, the startups are there, and gradually companies are adopting those solutions. However, what we see on the utility side is that new technologies like drones are not really fully adopted yet as an asset class to maintain, but also as a means to do a lot of asset management at present. Barriers for big corporates are still there, so they’re more in the stage of experimenting. A branch of one utility company now has a solution in place to monitor solar panels with drones, but that is not rolled out yet as an actual scheme. They are experimenting with some initial steps but don’t have a full fleet available.
Q: Where can drones make the biggest difference for power generation, transmission and distribution?
A: The power sector is an asset-heavy industry, but we see the value primarily in grid, both in electricity and in gas. And still a lot of change will be happening in the
future with the digital grid that needs to be built: there is a tremendous need to observe, monitor and inspect the grid more than ever. That is absolutely one entrance, and a side element of that is probably less towards classic generation because those environments are controlled, measured and sensored all over the place, but the biggest change with regards to generation will be linked to the growth of renewables, such as wind turbines and solar panels. Renewables will only rise, both as central generation but also in distributed generation.
At EY, we’ve also experimented on that. In our innovation labs in Paris, we have built a scenario where we have an autonomous drone flying out to do inspections of solar panels and leveraging blockchain technology. Based on the flight, you then ask for maintenance, and if everything is fine then you collect the payment.
We built that test case in a lab environment to demonstrate that this is also bit of a collision of technologies. In my opinion, a drone as such is not such big deal, but if you bring together all of these technologies you come to use cases which are very interesting, with very high potential in terms of efficiency and accuracy. Ours is a quick-and-dirty prototype but we built it and it’s there, so we have demonstrated that it is feasible.
Decreases in efficiency in a solar panel, either in central generation or a domestic panel, are detected through the meter or through its yield. As a result, the information in the blockchain says ‘send a drone’. Our system uses an autonomous drone. You can take off from a launch pad anywhere and fly to the location, do the inspection, take pictures, apply the blockchain again, and go back after the maintenance to see whether the problem has been corrected.
The use case for this is that you could send out maintenance requests on the blockchain through smart contracts. Companies could bid for the contract and the best price would win it, and the maintenance company would go to the site.
Q: What are the barriers to drone adoption for energy firms?
A: First of all, from a more general point of view, you see that utilities have just started looking at emerging technologies. Drones are not the only thing: robotics, AI and blockchain are all pretty new to them, so organizations are not always set up to experiment with those new technologies. It requires a change to the operating model to do this type of experimentation and develop new solutions to either increase efficiency or drive additional revenues. This is where a lot of utilities are struggling, and are at the early stages.
Secondly, I think there are still some hurdles in terms of regulations on where you can fly, how high, which areas you can cover. In urban areas it’s much more difficult to use drones.
We do see that regulations, particularly for innovation, will take some time. We see this with many other technologies, like blockchain and peer-to-peer trading: there needs to be a solution and innovation in place, and sometimes even a precedent, before the regulators will change. This also applies, for example, to regulations and rules to apply certain asset management solutions. Automatic processing of data through AI and thermal pictures through drones are already accepted by the regulator for asset management inspection. There can be millions of question marks at this point in time – but a few utilities are breaking ground and doing stuff.
A drone of course is a medium of automation, so in some people it induces fear and resistance to some extent – will it take away my job, is it going to have an impact on this organization, why should I adopt this when we have something today that works pretty well? It’s the belief of some people that they could do the job better with individuals, but the fact is that AI and image recognition are much more efficient than humans.
Q: What do you predict for the drone sector in the next five years?
A: These devices are such that we would expect that they will evolve, although they are in pretty good shape. I can imagine that we can expect to see a revolution in autonomous vehicles, to fly more without pilots. That is coming; the technology is already there in the military.
And for the processing as such, we’re very positive about the adoption of AI. Also, for EY, we see tremendous potential in AI, because at the end of the day it is a technology that allows us to solve the biggest problems with very advanced algorithms. The great breakthrough is that a lot of the functionalities in AI are ready and available in standard suites – this is a very easy way to apply those functions. Image recognition of thermal pictures is an API call you can make, and it is there now. In terms of data processing, availability of these algorithms in common suites, availability of data integration with drones, it’s all there, and we see that really happening in the market right now. We get a lot of questions from clients around AI, data processing and forecasting.
Q: What kinds of drone companies will be most successful in the coming years?
A: I think the companies that will prevail are the ones that will be able to operate in an autonomous way, and the ones that are able to offer more than just “I have a machine flying around”. If they are able to develop specific services inside analytics and predictions, since I don’t believe that utilities will be able to develop those very specific algorithms that are required to do all these predictions.
The value is more in algorithms and in data processing than in just a machine that flies around. Companies that are able to provide specific functions and algorithms combined with a high level of automation to reduce the cost will win. Those that will be able to integrate their offerings to the point of asset management will prevail.
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