Welcome to the Drones Issue of PEi magazine.

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles in the power and utility sector has been steadily increasing in recent years.

Many energy firms have discovered that the bird’s-eye view offered by a drone can pinpoint far more problems than a traditional inspection team – and do it in a fraction of the time and at a much lesser cost.

We are now seeing drones deployed for inspections of transmission and distribution infrastructure, wind farms, solar parks, nuclear, coal and gas-fired power plants.

Thierry Mortier, Global Power & Utilities Innovation Leader at global consultancy EY, says that “the power sector is an asset-heavy industry” and therefore there are ample opportunities for drones, but he adds that “we see the value primarily in grid, both in electricity and in gas”.

And he says that the rise of the digital grid will open even more doors to drone: “There is a tremendous need to observe, monitor and inspect the grid more than ever. 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.”

EY are even working on a model that blends drones with blockchain: “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,” says Mortier.

Elaine Whyte, a director at global consultancy PwC and its UK drones leader, explains that in the power sector, which is reliant on the integrity of a large network, “they are currently just beginning to appreciate the value that drones can deliver. It’s still at an early adoption stage but will rapidly catch on that it will become business as usual to use them.”

PwC estimates that the commercial market for drone technology applications across the global power and utilities industry could be worth as much as $9.46 billion a year by 2021. “The good thing about drones,” says Whyte, “is they give you this absolute definitive, repeatable recorded golden thread of information.”

There has already been an evolution for those drone companies operating in the power and utility sector. They quickly realised that the real value was not just in the collection of data, but especially in its interpretation.

This has led to many firms evolving into software developers.

“In the beginning we didn’t have the report generation option and we just added it as a basic feature before realising its probably the most important aspect of the product,” says Ken Falk, founder of Scopito.

Wei Yik Lee, co-founder of Advanced Vision Analytics Asia, says that the “the value of the drone signals a new era – and that era is data. That data comes from images, and what you can do with that data is boundless. Predictive maintenance will be possible in the future with a drone.” Riaan Meyer, managing director of UAV firm GeoSun Africa, agrees: “The sensors that can be connected to a drone will open up so many doors, you are going to be blown away.” He says that already companies using drone inspections are considering using the service every few months instead of annually because it is so much quicker than traditional methods. “That would yield a dynamic volume of data.” The rise of artificial intelligence is allowing scope for autonomous drones to come into play in the energy sector.

Will Hitchcock of solar inspection company AboveSurveying says he sees “so much development in drones having a level of intelligence to make their own decisions about what they do: 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, whereas 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.”

Ben Gorham, director of UK-based Sky Revolutions, has a note of caution: “Autonomous systems do take a lot of the emphasis off the pilot, but you have to look at things in case they might not always go to plan – you need to be confident in the pilot’s competence to take over, despite override buttons and fail safes.”

In the following pages we will examine in detail all these developments, offering insights for those companies that are already utilizing drones and those who are thinking about making their first moves with an ‘eye in the sky’.