The business case for drones is impressive across the energy sector, but their adoption has been slow. Tildy Bayar spoke with four drone technology firms to find out how their offering can help energy companies

Credit: Texo

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, and 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.

Data-based decision making

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 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,” he says, “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. 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 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.”

Will Hitchcock is founder and Managing Director at UK-based Above Surveying, 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 was rarely carried out across more than 10 per cent of a solar site, if that,” he explains. “It was usually reduced in scope because of the cost. And if you’re doing it by hand you’re often shading your own image, and the camera angle to the panel is not necessarily going to give you the correct result. The drone doesn’t suffer from that as it is high enough away and stabilized.

“On a large solar farm, even 5 MW, you will have 26,000+ modules and you’re probably going to have two to three people doing that work by hand, and you can’t necessarily guarantee the consistency of what they’re doing.”

Many issues with solar panels, he says, are undetectable through other inspection and monitoring techniques. But now that more detailed information can be provided using drones, 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 Ltd, also based in the UK. The firm works with energy industry clients including onshore and offshore wind, conventional power generation assets and T&D.

A good example of how drones can add value to operations and maintenance, Williams says, would be “a gas turbine site where they need a five-year mandatory inspection on the exhausts. We offer internal inspection services, using 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 traditional manual access methods or working at height.

“Another advanced technology for the power industry we operate is drone-mounted UV corona payloads, which allow visualization of the corona effect on power lines that are invisible to the naked eye,” he adds. “It’s a UV data capture sensor that can inspect electrical components and detect faults that allow operators to act before catastrophic failure becomes imminent.

“You’re always going to need rope access personnel for repair and maintenance,” he cautions, “but certainly there’s a move towards minimizing putting people at risk for inspections, whether visual or otherwise. For example, we’ve developed a UAV-deployed ultrasonic thickness testing technology. We use a probe with a gel on it to ensure that, rather than being used just for stand-off visual inspections, we can now make full contact. This removes the need for inspection using rope access techniques and is quicker, safer and more cost-effective.

“The same sensor technology is used by the rope access teams, but we’ve managed to integrate it fully with drone technology. We have in development an advanced version that will look at paint thickness as well, and also alternating current field measurement (ACFM) technology looking at weld fatigue on pylons.”

And drones can also improvise solutions to pre-existing problems. Williams adds: “We worked recently with an international offshore wind turbine operator and, on the back of a need they identified, we developed the world’s and industry’s first UAV-integrated winch system for the supply and retrieval of loads up to 10 kg.”

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 a power project’s 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 walk the distribution or transmission lines, looking up for possible defects. 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 is intact and all components are healthy.

“This is where drones come in handy,” he says, as they 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. Instead of using his eyes to inspect the towers, a lineman could be using a drone to take a few pictures, and instead of using his best judgment he can look at the facts.”

Credit: Laserpas

Credit: Laserpas

Credit: Above Surveying

‘It’s not about the drone’

A common theme among all four 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.”

But Laserpas is “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, who says Texo is “not just a UAV company, we’re a precision data acquisition company with world-first survey and inspection technology”.

“Our creation of digital-twin assets for clients with the ability to overlay thermal, multispectral, hyperspectral and visual data, all on a highly accurate laser-scanned 3D model, is truly unique. But it’s what the client does with the data, and how they can change their spend profile, that makes the difference,” he adds. “We have bespoke software that allows the client to access the data we’ve captured in an actionable information format. Having an inspection regime that isn’t just reactive or fixed on failure can improve their CAPEX spend profile based on viable engineering data.

“The technology we’ve developed helps us get through the door, 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 are looking for an infill of data; others are 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 report, we will provide them with that.”

As his background is in the solar sector, Hitchcock says he founded Above Surveying to solve an industry problem: how to accurately inspect 100 per cent of the modules across large-scale PV installations. But at the same time he notes that “our business is all about delivering thermographic data and analytics, which has only really been possible since the advent of the drone”.

In the rapidly growing solar sector, he says, “Different types of failure mechanisms and degenerative problems with solar panels, which might not be properly understood now, can be identified and assessed using drone-based inspections and analytics. One degenerative problem solar panels can suffer from is PID – potential-induced degradation. The industry is really just beginning to understand its impact, how it starts, how to tackle it, and how well the panels 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 for inspections. The drone shows it far earlier than any other assessment method.”

Johal says drones are “a tool to make business processes more efficient, safer and more cost-effective. A drone is a commodity and anyone can buy one, but customizing it to business processes and operating it effectively is where the value really is.”

To this end, Measure 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.”

Credit: Measure

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 adoption 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 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 commissioning a drone operator.

“We work very closely with the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board and CIRIA, the construction industry body, to help develop guidelines for their members so they know the questions to ask. We’re very keen to work with these types of bodies to raise the bar across the industry.”

Regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from country to country, are also a challenge. The most important 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, 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 the most effective solution. 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 and beyond,” he notes. “We have the technology for that now, and regulators are starting to work closely with operators. ”

Since 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 Measure is already on it.

“We’re using drones today to inspect distributed generation assets, whether rooftop solar, carports or community-based solar,” he says. “On the development side, before a rooftop PV system even gets onto a building, 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.

“Going into the operational phase, a lot of these assets are leased. The owner is someone else whose job is to maintain and operate the equipment. For example, if a community has 200 homes and buildings equipped with solar PV, a person would need to use a ladder to do inspections, which can take many days. Instead, they could use drones to more efficiently pinpoint the panels that require repair
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.”

Above Surveying’s Hitchcock says there is “such a huge amount going on in the drone technology space around AI and automation that, in the future, you will see drones operating autonomously across large-scale solar assets, seeking out, analyzing and reporting defects on demand.”

On the business side, Texo’s Williams believes that, in future, “there will be a lot of consolidation” in the drone sector. “There are over 3700 licensed commercial drone operators in the UK, and the vast majority of them are micro operators with single UAV systems,” he says. “There are many applications for that entry-level offering, but many are struggling to find enough work in the current environment. In the next few years, I’d expect many of the smaller operators will move out of the industry and there will be consolidation among the larger commercial companies, leaving just a handful of go-to firms for high-end industrial inspection work.”

Credit: Texo