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Drones Deployed for Utility Line Inspections

Don’t look now, but over the next few weeks, state-of-the-art technology will be performing important work right over our heads. For those who may look up and worry about the tiny craft spotted buzzing overhead, this is not an invasion or an assault on Chaffee County privacy. It’s a critical infrastructure assessment by Xcel Energy using Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) also known as drones.

Xcel Energy has announced an initiative to deploy multiple UAS to inspect and photograph utility lines in its Chaffee County service area. The work is part of phase two of a larger, multi-phase, state-wide inspection effort that has already encompassed some 2,900 miles of electric transmission line and 1,500 miles of transmission gas pipeline in Colorado.

The inspections are being done via ground and aerial patrol, as well as infrared inspection of all transmission lines. The collaborative effort by Xcel Energy includes eSmart Systems and EDM International. Jim Downie, a Ft. Collins, Colorado electrical utility operator representing EDM International, has been contracted to conduct the utility line inspections for this area. The enhanced inspections on the distribution system will inspect nearly 900 poles in Chaffee County.

These enhanced inspections provide a detailed evaluation of the pole top equipment, including the pole top itself, cross-arms, transformers, insulators, and wildlife protection systems. A UAS pilot captures pictures of the pole from multiple angles and the equipment is then virtually inspected to identify any defects, which are then addressed through our repair and replacement programs.

According to Xcel Energy Media Relations Representative Michelle Aguayo, one of the primary reasons for the Xcel inspections occurring now has to do with wildfire prevention. The work is part of their preparations for the filing of the company’s Wildfire Mitigation Plan with the Colorado Public Utility Commission.

“Xcel Energy is dedicated to providing our customers with the safe, reliable electricity that powers their lives every day. One way we do this is by taking a proactive approach to maintaining our electrical transmission and distribution lines in the communities we serve,” said Aguayo. “This includes the work we’re doing in Chaffee County, which is part of our comprehensive wildfire risk mitigation program.”

“We are integrating UAS to enhance public and worker safety and improve reliability to our customers. The UAS pictures allow inspectors to see angles of the pole they would not be able to see from the ground. That helps us identify problems early and will help prevent outages. The pictures also give us information that helps in the design and reconstruction of poles, leading to lowing repair and replacement costs.

With the very real threat of wildfire in the state (and the recent history of wildfires in this region, including the Decker Fire, Hayden Pass Fire, and Hayman Fire in the past five years) the work is timely.

These are commercial-grade unmanned aerial systems, not the hobby drones that have been the source of community disturbance and privacy concerns noted in other areas of the state. In fact, this isn’t run-of-the-mill random flight work. According to Xcel, the inspection patterns are mapped and executed using Grid Vision, an artificial intelligence (AI)-based data analytics solution from eSmart. Combined with human brainpower, this analytic inspection is part of an initiative referred to by the work partners as “collaborative intelligence”.

Xcel’s Phase two of the mapping inspection is ambitious; an additional 5,000 miles of transmission lines and poles by the end of 2020. The company says that the second phase will further improve the inspection processes with deeper integration of Grid Vision.

The company points out the work is “part of its larger effort to inspect and harden assets and develop enhanced operating procedures to manage elevated fire threat conditions. That effort is purposefully incorporating emerging technologies such as drones, covered conductor, and advanced monitoring.”

The company’s notification to customers explains that this virtual inspection work deploys drones where it isn’t safe or practical, or efficient to get staff into; “The work is part of the company’s transition from manual grid inspection practices to a process that uses the combination of humans, AI, and aerial images. The results are obvious: more efficient inspections, reduced failure rates and extended asset life.”

Xcel says this second phase will improve the inspection processes, enhanced by its Collaborative Intelligence approach involving deep integration of Grid Vision. eSmart and EDM are using the Phase One image data to improve the efficacy of Grid Vision, improving asset component identification, and defect detection.

“eSmart Systems is pleased to partner with EDM to bring its Collaborative Intelligence approach to help Xcel Energy use aerial image data,” said CEO and founder of eSmart Systems Knut H. H. Johansen. “We see this project as helping utilities to practically bridge the gap in the transition from today’s largely manual processes to the world that leverages digital technology such as AI and UAS images for grid inspection and asset management.”

Drone image courtesy eSmart Systems

The company says it is making a concerted effort, including written communications and robocalls, to inform the public so that people aren’t surprised when they see a drone flying overhead in the Xcel service area. The inspection work in this area of the state is expected to occur over the next two weeks.

Chaffee County which has hosted several, state-wide UAS conferences is no stranger to UAS demonstrations.

Featured image: Small Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Services. Image courtesy of EDM International

Editor note: UAS (drones) show here are for illustration purposes.  Actual models, flight plans, and scope of work vary by location within the county.