The business case for drones is impressive across the energy sector, but their adoption has been slow to take off. In the first in a series of special PEi articles on drones, four companies explain how they are working within the solar, windpower, T&D and thermal power sectors.
The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, in the energy sector is in its infancy, with many companies still unsure about the value drones could bring to their operations. But this market segment is a fast-growing infant with a potentially bright future: in a recent report, professional services consultancy PwC valued the addressable market of drone-powered solutions in the power and utilities sector at $9.46 billion.
It’s easy to see why when you look at the business case for drones across power generation, transmission and distribution. We spoke with four drone companies working in the energy sector to find out what they do, and how they think their offering can help energy firms. On the surface, these companies all do the same thing: substituting unmanned drone inspection technology for manned aerial, rope-access or on-foot inspections. But each firm is different depending largely on two factors: who their customer base is, and what they do with the data post-flight.
Mantas Vaskela is chief executive of Lithuania-based Laserpas, which uses drones to perform inspections of T&D infrastructure worldwide. He said the business case for drone use is clear “if utilities take time and reliability as a main investment criterion” and if they are willing to move “from time-based decision making to data-based decision making”.
“The way transmission and distribution companies spend their money is not as maximally efficient as it could be, because the majority of what they do and the ways they invest are based on a presumption that the oldest line they have is the worst line they have,” he explains. “I have seen numerous times where a ten-year-old transmission line is in horrible condition and a 40-year-old line is in excellent condition. Even small things like kids peeling off paint can create huge problems.
“With our technology, by doing analysis – thermal, laser, optical, ultraviolet and other kinds – we try to find out if this is truly the case. We can see all the various problems every single component in a line has, which allows us to tell the company This section of even a brand-new line is coming close to failure due to environmental factors.
“By providing this information we can help companies to invest more efficiently and in a way which actually delivers better results. The utility can fix something which is broken, rather than something which is just old.”
Will Hitchcock is Managing Director at UK-based AboveSurveying, which uses drones to inspect utility-scale solar PV installations. He says drone-based thermographic cameras that can measure heat are the ideal solution to a solar sector problem.
“Before the advent of UAV thermography it was rarely done across more than 10 per cent of a solar site, if that,” he explains, “and it was reduced in scope because of the cost. And if you’re doing it by hand you’re often shading your own image, so if you’re standing in front of the PV array it’s not necessarily going to give you the correct result.
“On a large solar farm, even 5 MW, you will have 26,000+ modules and you’re probably going to have two to three guys doing that work, and you can’t necessarily guarantee the consistency of what they’re doing. You need to do hand-held thermography when the panel is under load, i.e., in the sun, and then the sun is behind you, so you cause a shadow. The drone doesn’t suffer from that as it is high enough away.”
Many issues with solar panels, he says, were “previously undetectable through other inspection monitoring techniques”. Now that more detailed information can be provided, the sector is taking notice.
“The bulk of our work over the last two years has been warranty-based, around payment milestones or technical due diligence,” Hitchcock says. “Really understanding the health of your modules is very important in paying a milestone to a contractor or acquiring a new asset.”
David Williams is Principal Compliance Officer at Texo Drone Survey and Inspection, also based in the UK. His firm works with a variety of customers within the energy industry including onshore and offshore wind, conventional power generation assets and T&D.
A good example of how drones can add value, he says, would be “a gas turbine site where they need a five-year mandatory inspection on the chimneys. We offer internal inspection drones, which are caged drones for confined spaces where you can’t or wouldn’t want to put a human. Deployment is quicker and there’s no need for scaffolding, rope access or working at height.
“The other thing we have is a UV corona payload which can visualize the corona effect you see on power lines, generators etc,” he adds. “It’s a camera that can inspect the pylons and wires themselves and identify, before they fail, issues to do with the corona effect.
“You’re always going to need guys on a rope for any kind of repair and maintenance,” he cautions, “but certainly there’s a move towards minimizing putting them at risk for inspections, whether visual or otherwise. For example, we’re developing a thickness testing technology and bringing it to market. We use a probe with a gel on it to ensure contact to do ultrasonic thickness testing, so rather than being used for just stand-off visual inspections, we can make full contact. That takes away some of the rope access work and is generally quicker, definitely safer and arguably cheaper.
“The same technology is used by the rope access guys, but we’ve managed to integrate it fully with the drone technology. We have in development an advanced version of that that will look at paint thickness as well, and also alternating current field measurement (ACFM) technology looking at wall fatigue on pylons – that’s another technology that requires contact.”
And drones can also improvise solutions. Williams adds: “We did some work with a bluechip offshore wind turbine operator and, on the back of their issue, we developed the world’s first supply drop UAV. The company had an issue offshore, and engineers and rope access guys were going up to do maintenance work atop a turbine. You can’t land a drone on a turbine, so we developed a bespoke solution to allow the drone to fly above the operator and deploy. That was client-led; it was a problem they had had in the past.”
Harjeet Johal is Vice-President of Energy Infrastructure at US drone solutions firm Measure. He outlines numerous use cases for drones across the power sector, including for utility-scale wind and solar farms, transmission lines, hydropower (using submersible drones) and thermal plant. Drones can improve efficiency, speed, safety and cost from the design, pre-construction and development stages through to commissioning and ongoing maintenance, he says.
The value proposition Johal outlines for utilities covers inspection of power lines, towers and other structures, poles and substations. For example, in inspecting transmission and distribution lines, he says: “Today people use two methods: [manned] helicopters for high voltage lines away from urban areas, and in suburban or urban areas where the voltage tends to be lower, the most common way to inspect is ground patrolling.
“An army of linemen patrol the distribution or transmission lines, walking the line, looking up at the tower and lines for possible defects, and if there is something that needs attention they have to climb up the tower or pole and do a more thorough inspection. This is a dangerous job with hazardous conditions, and they are using their best judgment to evaluate whether the infrastructure of a tower is intact and all components are healthy.
“This is where drones come in handy,” he says. “In inspecting infrastructure, drones could supplement some of the work ground patrolling is being used for today. That could take two forms, either deploying drones on miles and miles of infrastructure, or the drone as part of a toolkit: a linemen pulls up another tool from his truck. Instead of using his eyes to inspect the towers, he could be using a drone to take a few pictures, and instead of using his best judgment he can look at the facts.”
‘It’s not about the drone’
A common theme among drone surveying firms is that the drone, while it may be the sexiest and most visible part of their offering, is really the least important. These companies would like to be viewed, not as drone-flying outfits, but as data-driven asset management firms, and they all say that how they process and offer the drone-captured data is what differentiates them from each other. As Vaskela puts it in describing Laserpas, “We are a sophisticated asset management company that also does fieldwork”.
“A lot of companies base themselves on the technology – ‘We do drones, we do laser scanning’,” he says. “We are trying to base ourselves on customer problems. Very simply, we want them to ask: ‘How do I know that if I invest some money here it will increase my metrics, achieve better results, pay off better dividends to my shareholders?’.”
However, a fleet of drones does bring in business. “I’ll be very frank,” Vaskela says. “The technology opens a lot of doors because we’re dealing with an engineering industry, and engineers like our technology. Then after the first meeting we usually explain that we are not a single technology driver, we have multiple drivers.
“We are not a company which has a technology looking for a problem, we are a company which knows a problem,” he says. “Long-term, we will operate more as a data processing company than a data collection company, but today we need to do both because nobody else does the data collection how we need it to be done.”
This point is echoed by Williams when describing Texo. He says the firm is “not a UAV company, we’re a precision data acquisition company with world-first survey and inspection sensors”.
“Our creation of digital-twin assets for clients with the ability to overlay thermal or multispectral or hyperspectral visual data, all on a highly accurate laser-sourced point cloud 3D model, is quite unique. But it’s what the client does with the data, and how it can change their spend profile, that makes the difference,” he adds. “We have bespoke software that allows the client to access our data to turn it into actionable data for them. Having an inspection regime that isn’t reactive or fixed on failure can change their CAPEX spend profile based on viable engineering data.
“The technology helps us get through the door for sure, but clients need more than ‘Look at our latest bit of tech’; they’re looking for end-to-end service. No two clients are the same: some have their own engineering software and departments and are looking for an infill of data; a lot would be looking for a full inspection report. We have inspection engineers on our team as well, so if a client wants full service with a signed-off thermographic inspection, we will provide them with that.”
As his background is in the solar sector, Hitchcock says he founded AboveSurveying to “solve a problem in a sector that I understood – how to accurately inspect 100 per cent of the modules across large-scale PV installations – rather than setting up a drone company to do ‘drone stuff’.” But at the same time, he notes that “our business is all about delivering thermography that has only been possible to do because of the drone”.
In the fast-moving solar sector, he says: “Different types of failure mechanisms and degenerative problems with solar panels might not be understood now, but this understanding might materialize in three years’ time. One degenerative problem solar panels can suffer from is PID – potential-induced degradation. The industry is just beginning to understand how it starts, how to tackle it in terms of preventing it from spreading across an array, and how well the panel will recover.
“Within the drone, varying levels of irradiation will show PID in different ways. Understanding and interpreting the irradiation against the amount of hot cells in that pattern is a relatively new thing the sector is getting our heads around. This awareness has been brought about or accelerated by the use of drones doing these inspections. The drone shows it far earlier than any other assessment method.”
Measure’s Johal says drones “are really just another tool to make business processes more efficient and cost-effective. A drone is a commodity and anyone can buy one, but customizing it to business processes is where the value really is.”
To this end, his firm offers what it calls a ‘drone as a service’ concept, as well as a drone toolkit. “The services aspect pans out in areas where you need more complex inspections or more detailed photos,” Johal says, “and also can be used in instances where the company needs some help post-outage or post-disaster. Toolkits could find use cases in some of these instances, but the low-hanging-fruit business idea is that a lineman can use a drone to make his job easier where inspections are somewhat less complicated.
“The drone’s pictures can potentially be sent back for analysis, but linemen do not typically integrate inspection work with back-end processing. The lineman is not sending 10,000 pictures back to the control room because, if that is the case, you’re going more towards the services aspect.”
Looking to the skies
While the future looks bright for drones in the energy sector, a number of challenges remain. Measure’s Johal says one challenge for drone companies is that the market adoption rate has been slower than expected, with most organizations “currently at the early-adopter stage” and, overall, a reluctance to try new technologies.
“Of course there are companies and entities who quickly realize the value of automating and the economics of upscaling drone operations across their infrastructure,” he says. “Then again, companies would like to see how their peers are doing and learn from their successes or failures. The adoption rate is a challenge, but that is true for any new technology. It is a challenge and an opportunity to educate the industry on the value drones bring to the table and why it’s important to avail themselves of this technology sooner rather than later.”
While there are not yet international standards or a global drone sector trade body, Texo’s Williams says “a number of industry associations are very keen to help their members understand what they should be looking for when looking to hire drone operator. The engineering training board and CEREA, the construction industry body, are both looking to set up guidelines for their members so they know the questions to ask when hiring an operator. We’re very keen to work with these types of bodies to raise the bar.”
Regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from country to country, are also a challenge. The most significant regulation is the Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) rule, which states that a pilot cannot fly a drone beyond where she can see it. The sector is hopeful that this regulation may be relaxed in future, which Johal says would enable drones to compete much more effectively with manned helicopter flights. “The industry is working towards this, but it won’t happen tomorrow,” he says.
In the UK, within the VLOS is specified as 500 metres away from the pilot and 120 metres from ground level. “Ordinarily, for basic visual inspection or thermographic inspection, that would be sufficient,” says Williams. “That said, there are specific applications where BVLOS is anything beyond 500 metres. For example, for inspection of a wind turbine several km offshore, it is more efficient if we can do that from the shore as opposed to having to do a vessel transfer.
“There is a move towards BVLOS and extended VLOS which would take you up to 1500 metres,” he notes. “The technology is there for that now, and regulators are starting to work closely with operators. Any pushes in regulations led by the offshore industry would work just as well.”
On the business side, Williams says: “I think what’s likely to happen in future, and this is quite a common view I think, is that there will be lot of consolidation in the drone sector. There are 3554 licensed drone operators in the UK, I believe, and 95 per cent of them are ‘one-man bands’. There are a lot of good applications for that entry-level stuff, but there are a lot of them and many are struggling to find enough work. In the next couple of years or so, a lot of operators will move out of the industry and there will be consolidation among the larger companies. In future there could be just a handful of go-to firms for high-end industrial inspection kind of work.”
In terms of technology development, Laserpas’s Vaskela believes that “we will have slightly more developed, better and more automatic solutions”, and that “in the long term drones will become easier to use and much more versatile, and it will be easier to get different kinds of equipment for them.”
AboveSurveying’s Hitchcock says he sees “so much development in drones having a level of intelligence to make their own decisions about what they do, that we could in future foresee a drone that, when it identifies a defect, can go to a lower height to record more detailed imagery before flying on, where at the moment this is done manually in post-processing. This should develop quite quickly over the next couple of years as the industry produces more solutions for this kind of space.”
And, as these companies have evolved their business models to work with the energy sector as it stands now, how will they fare in an increasingly decentralized energy system? Johal says his firm is already on it.
“We’re using drones today to inspect distributed generation assets, whether rooftop solar, carports or community-based solar. On the development side, before a rooftop PV system even gets onto the home, the developers want to present a ROI: how many panels will be needed, shading issues from trees, obstructions etc, and the drone value scheme can be used during that phase of the project. Using Google Earth satellite imagery is good enough, but a drone flying a few feet away from the roof will provide much better resolution in terms of not only the layout, but more importantly how aspects related to shading can be captured, improving the business case that developers are presenting.
“Going into the operational phase, a lot of times you’ll see that these assets are leased. The owner is someone else whose job is to maintain and operate the equipment. If, out of 1000 homes, 1500 are equipped with solar PV, a person would need to use a ladder to do inspections and repair work, which can take many may days and can be easily supplemented by just flying drones.”
“But in the US,” he cautions, “the grid is so vast that a jump from an integrated transmission system to a completely decentralized system will not happen overnight. Use cases would evolve on the distribution side, and once they make sense they would roll out onto the transmission side. The need to inspect the transmission and distribution system will not go away with a shift to a more decentralized energy system, and at same time drones do provide value today in inspecting the distributed generation side of the infrastructure.”