Elaine Whyte, UK drones leader for global consultancy PwC, explains to Diarmaid Williams how drones can overcome many of the inspection challenges faced by power and utility companies

The good thing about drones is that “they give you an absolutely definitive, repeatable recorded golden thread of information”.

So says Elaine Whyte, a director at global consultancy PwC and its UK drones leader. Previously, she spent 20 years as an engineer with the Royal Air Force, so she is well aware of the advantages drones have offered in the defence sector.

Drones can spend longer in the air than a typical air crew, and can provide more extensive data to the operator. The parallels can easily be drawn with power utilities.

“In businesses like those in the power sector, who are reliant on the integrity of their large network, they are currently just beginning to appreciate the value that drones can deliver,” Whyte says. “Most of the companies currently use helicopters of some description, and of course drones are such a cost-effective way to collect the data that was previously, and expensively, collected by helicopters.

“It’s still at an early adoption stage but will rapidly catch on, so that it will become business-as-usual to use them.”

Interest is growing, and any mystique around the use of the machines is reducing over time – it’s finally being understood that the drone is simply a mechanism to get access to hard to reach environments, facilitating the collection of data valuable to the utility itself.

“Drones can cover the range quickly and collect data efficiently,” says Whyte. “If you are reliant on your network to deliver your output and it is dispersed, as it is in a power and utility environment, or if it is in an offshore area, there can be challenges to looking at particular assets at height.

“Drones become a really effective way of getting the data and understanding the condition of those assets.”

In October last year, PwC released an eye-catching report on the potential of the technology, and announced a complementary facility of its own.

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 up to 2021 according to PwC’s analysis.

This analysis is featured in the report, Leveraging Drone Technologies for Utilities, which looks at how drones are disrupting the way companies build, operate and maintain their networks. By turning to drones to solve some of the industry’s most difficult problems, creative utilities managers are not only increasing the reliability of their systems but also increasing worker safety.

Value chain benefits

The consultancy’s own contribution is its Geospatial.App software. This app allows the integration, presentation and management of mapping data gathered by drones equipped with visual, infrared and other cameras. This is useful across areas such as monitoring infrastructure construction, tracking the need for maintenance and assessing damage after natural or man-made disasters.

Whyte likes to think in terms of the entire value chain when it comes to the benefits of what are also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

“It’s the hardware, the actual data accrued from it and the value in how you extrapolate that data for business benefit,” she says. “For power and utilities, it could be the maintenance condition of their asset. It could potentially be about examining how vegetation is interfering with those assets, helping them target their maintenance programme in a more perceptive way so that those assets maintain their usage. If you take oil and gas, $7 million is an accepted figure per day if the facility has to shut down.”

The proliferation of distributed and renewable energy resources must be an obvious area for the technology to show its worth, while helping utilities to adapt to a new and challenging paradigm. Whyte agrees.

“Take the example of solar energy. There is an infrared sensor on a drone that can detect where your cold spots are on a particular solar farm. You can target where your technician can be directed to – that one spot that isn’t delivering power output.

“I don’t know how they would normally achieve that precise level of information gathering, and this is the good thing about drones: they give you this absolute definitive, repeatable recorded golden thread of information.

“If you were to take it to a capital project, flying a drone once a week will give you that absolute record of activity at the likes of Sellafield or other large-scale power projects.”

The Geospatial.App developed by PwC facilitates the understanding of the data being accumulated.

“When you collect information from a drone, the data has to be manipulated, ordered and viewed in a certain way and you view it through the geospatial app – it is the mechanism that you see presented to you at the front. It’s user-friendly and much more intuitive to use,” explains Whyte.

“As you can imagine, there are thousands of data points collected from looking over a particular area that are pretty useless if they are not presented to you in a human interface. The app means a human can understand, and you will always have a human in the loop.”

Capital projects

Back to the use of drones on capital projects, and Whyte outlines just some of the ways the technology can help provide different perspectives and valuable knowledge of what is going happening on the ground, vital when the expense of such undertakings is considered.

“Drones are an excellent asset in a capital project. Understanding all moving parts on a site is challenging but the accuracy you can collect from these drones is at a quantity surveyor level.

“You can capture that image and a programme manager at the site can have confidence to be able to view how all your assets are working together. You could use it to identify complications on an enormous site. You can use the drone information through the app to demonstrate, for example, where your access routes are for your workers on a daily basis as this can change frequently. You can use it to view how much earth is being removed and what assets you have to hand at any one time.

“So, complete asset management as well as programme controls – be that variants of costs and change requests from suppliers during builds. What you have with drone site coverage is an absolute record of where the site is at any particular point in time so you can trace back that decision making when a change comes through.

“Drones are not going to drive a whole new segment of any business, but what they will do is enhance the insight that people have and therefore make their programme management more effective, achieving a productivity edge.”

“Utilities have got a real opportunity to drive the technology agenda as well from a national infrastructure perspective, which is particularly relevant to the UK at the moment – and that has to be a good thing.”

Growing awareness

Drone companies are beginning to find their feet in the UK.

ABJ Drones started in the middle of 2017, but their parent company is well-established in the US.

Managing director Mark Caney says the UK operation is to benefit from long experience in utility inspections in several countries, particularly with regards to cell towers, power lines and wind turbines.

Caney says there is a growing awareness of what drones can do, but still some confusion on how to go about integration.

“It’s slow in that most of the organizations that could benefit from it are aware that there are benefits but are not really clear how to access them. I’m not really seeing the kind of takeup yet that we will see in the next five years.”

Wind turbine operators would vouch for the value associated with UAVs, and it looks a likely source of deployment, with the UK’s leadership role in that sector.

“Most companies are reporting savings of at least 30–60 per cent once they fully deploy drone-based solutions,” says Caney. “You don’t have to have humans ascending the turbine, which takes time, and you avoid the safety issues involved in putting a person on an elevated platform.

“You can send drones up with standard cameras and extreme zoom lenses. They can read bar codes and serial numbers of individual components, so you zero in and can identify everything being observed. It can identify signs of damage, signs of wear, facilitating timely inspections and maintenance.

“You can also use multi-spectrum cameras, infrared cameras that can see stress indicators not visible to the naked eye. When you detect something wrong you can send up personnel that can do what is required.

“What you can’t do with a drone is fix the problem in all cases, but you can dramatically cut down the length of time you are looking at the problems.”

Inspection of overhead transmission lines and heat networks is another area of potential gain in building and maintaining an efficient power infrastructure in an affordable manner, minimizing labour and identifying problems in advance.

“You can fly a drone along a power line and do a LiDAR survey where you can map exactly where the power lines are, the degree of curvature in the cable and, significantly, you can map the vegetation on either side of the power line. A common problem with power lines is you get a big storm and a tree falls, resulting in outages for a significant amount of time.

“You can also look at line insulation through an infrared camera to see if there is any evidence of whether it is breaking down or losing its function.”

An important element to the work is the reduction of downtime, as inspections can be carried out without turning off the power. This is opposed to traditional means where a team would be sent up and power would be turned off.

“We also have the capability to fit RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags on individual components such as pylons so, flying a drone nearby, you can immediately identify the asset involved and log that whole process. This allows for a far quicker and cost-effective inspection of assets than traditionally done manually.”

As mentioned, ABJ has the advantage of already being established in the Americas, and will simply be redeploying hard-won expertise in the EU/UK geographies: “We don’t have to go through the big learning curve that we first had to experience when developing this technology,” says Caney.

European and UK regulations are set to be introduced this month and on into 2019, and Caney is ideally positioned to see the benefits of this legislation come on board. He says: “I think those regulations will generally be for the benefit of the technology. I’m personally involved as a member of the BSI Committee that participates with the ISO Standards Group in helping to create those standards.

“This industry needs regulation, but sensible regulation, and fortunately most of the big players involved, including the government, can see there is a lot of money that can be saved by industrial drones being used so they want to develop a reasonable working environment.”

One area the regulatory bodies are examining is centred around ‘line of sight’ or permitted drone reach. It’s something a lot of work has gone into, as regulatory bodies are understandably cautious about incorporating drones into the overall air traffic control system.

“At the moment, operating drones is limited to line of sight where you have the pilot on the ground and you need to be able to see the drones at all times,” says Caney.

“We are expanding that envelope so you can fly the drones beyond line of sight and make much better use of that flexibility – the main limitation at the moment is the speed of creating regulations because the industry is very dynamic and the technology is going ahead quite rapidly, and it’s quite hard to write the regulations fast enough to keep up with it.”

Market potential

Dan Maine, head of DJM Aerial Solutions, an operator headquartered in northeast England, is making its first inroads into the power sector. A hydraulic mechanical engineer with long experience in the oil and gas sector, Maine knows there is much market potential to realize in the power area.

While wind turbine jobs have so far proven hard to crack, Maine’s firm is having more joy in the energy-from-waste area.

“We have had our equipment sought after for use at energy-from-waste biomass sites. These are for internal inspections for boilers or furnace. These need to be inspected regularly as part of their preventative maintenance programme, and normally they would have to shut down the furnace, erect a scaffold and get permits before they even do an inspection. They ask us to come in and do the same thing with a drone, and we perform it quicker and with a shorter shutdown.”

The extent of tech that can be carried by a drone is illustrated by Maine’s description of a recent equipment purchase.

“We’ve just invested in a survey grade drone, a Matrice 210,” says Maine. “There’s a lot of dual redundancy involved in terms of motor control. You’ve got a digital and analog supply for each motor, so if one fails the other allows it to continue. You’ve got a dual battery operation for the same reason, surrounding sensors so as to prevent going headlong into something or when in reverse mode. It’s similar to a
360-degree forcefield, if you like, with a built-in FTP camera which allows you essentially to see what the drone sees.

“You’ve got the ability to mount the camera on top of the UAV to give you a better look at any overhanging structures or bridges or the like. The camera also has access to a Z30, which has a 30x optical zoom and 6x digital – so
180x zoom capability while still getting a clear image.”

As the UK adapts to a more competitive era, utilities work harder to optimize costs and regulations begin to facilitate adoption, drone technology is set for a rapid upward trajectory over the coming decade.