For many, taking the step from trialling drone technology to integrating it into mainstream operations is a major hurdle. How can the power and utility industry be confident that the technology is here to stay, asks Dr Sue Wolfe

The February issue of PEi Magazine examined a wide range of emerging developments around the use of drones in the power and utility industries, from conception to cost saving.

But for many, taking the step from trialling the technology to integrating it into mainstream operations is a major hurdle. How can the power and utility industry be confident that this technology is here to stay?

The Association of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems UK (ARPAS-UK) was first formed in 2013 to support the UK’s emerging drone sector in all its challenges, including regulation, technology, business structure and legal matters.

Its members, with wide-ranging interests from drone operators to software developers and legal practitioners, all comply with a common code of practice.

Now, against the backdrop of 4031 commercial operators approved and holding valid permissions from the UK Civil Aviation Authority as at April 2018, ARPAS looks at how the UK is supporting the power and utilities and other industries use drones in the future. It examines central UK government policies and initiatives aimed at supporting more routine operations to drive economic growth, as well as some forthcoming changes to regulation and how industry is working with the government to drive the use of drones forward.

Drones, policy and support

A 2017 report from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) identified that one of the major factors to enable faster growth in the drone sector is the ability to operate in a safe and regulated manner Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS).

In addition to technology challenges are the limitations of our ability to harness the full capabilities of drones, thinking beyond direct replacement of current processes to entirely new approaches. The UK government, through the Department for Transport (DfT) and supported by BEIS, has coordinated a Pathfinder programme to do just this, centred on a common goal of achieving routine BVLOS by 2020. A series of visionary projects within that programme are underway, looking at applications including:

• Powerline and other infrastructure inspection;

• Energy Innovation Centre (EIC) innovation call issued in late 2016 to expand the range of current drone operations and demonstrate safe flight under BVLOS – project now commenced;

• Improving efficiencies in survey operations, led by Ordnance Survey with the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and the Survey Association;

• Project management of construction projects through earthworks;

• Demonstrator project underway at two sites led by construction company Costain and partners.

Other related programmes include the collaborative project AIRSTART, led by Airbus Group and supported by the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) and Innovate UK. The project has developed key technologies in four main areas enabling safe routine operation of small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) BVLOS.

Work on smart perception techniques for linear infrastructure was led by Blue Bear Systems Research. This included live trials on overhead power transmission lines which validated the inspection system design and functionality used to enable BVLOS operations.

Industrial Strategy, Support for Innovation and Sector Deals: the UK government is further embracing drone technology through inclusion in its industrial strategy and consequent provision of research and development funds.

In November 2017, BEIS published its industrial strategy white paper which refers to Four Grand Challenges, one of which is to “put the UK at the forefront of the artificial intelligence and data revolution”.

The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF), announced in May 2017, forms part of this strategy providing a £4.7 billion ($6.4 billion) increase in research and development over four years. Funding for drone applications is already being made available for demonstrations of robotics and artificial intelligence in hazardous applications and extreme environments such as nuclear power plant inspection and offshore oil and gas.

A range of Sector Deals with the government are also in preparation or approved. These are partnerships between government and industry on sector-specific issues which can create significant opportunities to boost productivity, employment, innovation and skills.

Regulation and the Drone Bill: The Department for Transport (DfT) launched a consultation on the safe use of drones at the end of 2016, the response to which was published in July 2017 and included proposals in the following key areas:

• Stimulating drone innovation and enterprise in the UK;

• Ensuring safety and operation within the law;

• Laying the foundations for a developed drone market.

The response was followed in November 2017 by a DfT announcement of its intention to publish a draft Drone Bill for consultation in spring 2018. The Bill will include a registration scheme and mandated use of an app for flight planning, helping to ensure safe operations, and paving the way for the devices to be harnessed for a range of routine uses including BVLOS power and utility inspection.

This will be within the framework of a developing Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) infrastucture and will also include legislative changes to the UK Air Navigation Order (ANO).

Following a consultation in 2017, the European Aviation Safety Agency, EASA, published Opinion 01-2018 in January. This forms the basis for new EU regulations which will shortly begin to be introduced for drone operations. The DfT draft Drone Bill is set to be consistent with those regulations, and additional comments and recommendations regarding safety risk have recently been published by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

T&D infrastructure is ripe for UAV inspections

Industry-driven standards

The Drone Industry Action Group (Drone IAG), of which ARPAS is a member, is a UK government-supported high level industry group with a remit to identify and respond to immediate barriers to growth in the drone industry. One of its priorities since its inception has been standards, and it will shortly be publishing an overview of drone standards development in the UK, within the overall framework of developing work within the EU.

A drone inspection in action

In advance of EU standards being published, the Drone IAG has identified that as a result of industry sectors such as power and utilities commonly adopting drones as a means to drive efficiencies, there is an increasing trend for representative professional bodies to provide guidance documents for its members to help to ensure safe and legal drone operations.

There are already well-established guidelines in the oil and gas and offshore sectors, the first version of which was published in January 2017 by Oil and Gas UK, aimed at providing guidelines for the industry in terms of what contributes to the safe operation of drones.

At this stage, guidance documentation is helping asset owners and service providers to make informed decisions based on risk and adopting best practice. The sector is reticent to develop actual standards too soon, as standards at this level have the potential to inhibit innovation and growth if they are not properly thought out.

The sector is therefore taking time to consider operational standards, especially while the drone industry is exhibiting such rapid growth. Oil and Gas UK also recognizes that standards will come at a broader industry level, not least in the quality of the data captured, and may require changes in work flow practices to fully exploit potential efficiency increases and savings.

Drones can dramatically cut the inspection time for wind turbines.

It is recognized by both UK industry and government that BVLOS operations will enable far-reaching efficiency improvements in the power and utility sector. While the use of drones in the sector is increasing, there remain a series of technology and regulatory challenges before it reaches its full potential.

The UK government, regulators and industry are working together in the development of a series of measures and legislative changes which will not only ensure future safety, but also begin to reduce barriers to routine operations, including the ability to operate beyond visual line of sight.

In consequence, ARPAS-UK believes that the outlook for future use of drones in the power and utility sector in the UK is excellent.

Dr Sue Wolfe is in charge of Business Development and Strategy at ARPAS-UK and is AIRSTART project manager