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Line riders in the sky

Here’s a mashup: take the precision of military drones, add the fun of radio-controlled miniature aircraft, then mix in the latest computer technology. And be sure to make the device look like it belongs in a sci-fi movie. Do all that, and you’ll have the next big thing for electric power grid maintenance.

Known as unmanned aircraft systems, micro drones are very real—and very cool-looking—high-tech flying observers capable of performing many tasks for electric utilities. In addition to what human eyes can see—sags, overhanging tree limbs, disconnected or damaged pieces and parts—these new devices can also sense and send information in real time about infrared and ultraviolet light, radio frequencies, and heat patterns.

Modified by commercial companies and already in limited use in Europe and Canada, micro drones are ready to make a huge contribution to improving the reliability of electric service in the United States. Their widespread use here is expected to become reality after the Federal Aviation Administration announces detailed regulations September 30, 2015.

Thomas Kirk, a technical research analyst for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, says, “The biggest benefits to using a drone to observe a transmission line corridor are the cost and safety. It’s much cheaper to fly a drone than to rent a helicopter or other piloted aircraft, and no lives are at risk. You can also put a lot of different sensors on them, and they are automated—you can tell them to run along a set route using existing geographic information system coordinates.”

Kirk says, “Depending on an electric cooperative’s size, I can see several ways these drones might be used to improve maintenance and restoration efforts.”

Small co-ops might use subcontractors on an as-needed basis, while larger generation and transmission co-ops might purchase drone systems for year-round use.

Hawk attacks drone

What happens when a hawk chases a drone? Watch this attack on electronic prey, and learn how flying a drone raises more complicated issues than you’d think.

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Sharing the skies

Who gets to fly what where? Safely adding drones to American airspace is a complicated problem

Rules for drones were the farthest thing from my mind the first time I saw one in action. The little white disc looked like a comic book flying saucer as it flew over me and thousands of other fans at an outdoor Jimmy Buffett concert. It hovered overhead, mostly about 50 feet up, then smoothly shifted this way and that way, sometimes higher, sometimes lower. As it moved, tiny cameras onboard streamed live video of us swaying and dancing to the music onto the enormous flat-screen TVs on the stage. The drone made it possible for the audience to become part of the show.

I have no idea who was at the controls, or what kind of training they had to make sure the little drone didn’t fall into the crowd, or zip away and get caught in a tree. I thought of it as a toy, not much different from a radio-controlled miniature airplane, certainly not something to be worried about.

The Federal Aviation Administration takes a completely different view. The FAA doesn’t call them drones—they are properly known as unmanned aircraftsystems. And the FAA is worried about how to keep drones out of the way of all the other things already up in the sky. The FAA is responsible for keeping all U.S. airspace safe—not just in the immediate areas around airports, but everywhere. The FAA is working to develop regulations for commercial drones that will be very different from the FAA’s existing model aircraft guidelines.

Model aircraft operated by hobbyists must stay below 400 feet, be at least three miles from a real airport, and may only be flown away from populated areas. Well, two out of three isn’t bad—the drone I saw didn’t go that high and the nearest airport was about five miles away. But it was directly overhead above several thousand people.

Although specific FAA approval is not needed to fly model airplanes, the FAA does encourage all hobbyists to read and follow the FAA’s guidelines for safe operations. I have the idea that drone operators will have to be much more careful, perhaps required to pass a test to obtain a new kind of license.

For manned aircraft, from tiny one-engine propeller planes to jumbo jets, the rules are already very complicated. In general, these aircraft must stay at least 500 feet above the ground. Depending on the type of engine, technology onboard, and the pilot’s training, different kinds of aircraft fly in different zones above the ground, with different rules for day and night.

At what distance above the ground and how far from airports drones will be permitted to fly are just two of the problems the FAA must consider. Will it be OK for them to fly at night? Will it be OK for them to fly between buildings in cities? What about over parks or wildlife refuges? The FAA is considering all kinds of dos and don’ts and practical details, with the first set of proposed rules to be announced on September 30, 2015.

The FAA estimates that by 2018 as many as 7,500 small commercial drones may be in use for various purposes. The skies are going to get very crowded very soon.

First drone test to inspect power lines

An investor-owned utility receives FAA permission to fly drones over transmission lines in California

Under the guidelines of what is known as a “Special Airworthiness Certificate for a small Unmanned Aircraft System,” the Federal Aviation Administration granted San Diego Gas and Electric limited permission to use drone technology to inspect high-voltage power lines this summer. The experimental project is the first utility project of its kind in the United States. SDG&E is a division of Sempra Energy, an investor-owned company.

The test zones, in a remote mountainous area of California, are long and thin, roughly two and a half miles long and half a mile wide in corridors where there are no homes or businesses. The drones being used in the test are a bit larger than a dinner plate, and weigh less than one pound. Four propellers give each drone excellent maneuverability—they are able to be flown up, down, forward, and backward.

The experiments will test the devices’ abilities to gather and send information about the condition of the power lines while electricity flows through them. The drones will also be able to observe trees and other vegetation in the right-of-way zones around the transmission lines and support towers. The test flights include training workers in how to control and use the drones.

The lessons learned during these experiments will provide valuable information to the FAA as it develops rules and regulations for a technology that could substantially change how utilities provide reliable electric service.

Nancy Grant from December 2014 Issue

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