Wish List Drones Fly Power Lines to Poles in Puerto Rico

(Photo Credit: Duke Energy)

Drones used to be on the futuristic wish list of energy management tools a few years ago. But now real-life commercial drone deployments are picking up, and not just for inspections. Duke Energy reported this week that the company’s drone team used the drones to help restring power lines in Puerto Rico.

Last October Hurricane Maria devastated the island, bringing down power lines and poles. Since then, vegetation has continued growing, making those buried lines even harder to spot. Duke Energy, which has more than 220 workers in Puerto Rico working on power restoration, brought in a drone team to assist.

Besides being used to scan the mountainsides for safe access paths, the drones pulled lightweight nylon parachute cord to string power lines over long distances — a task that previously required a hazardous helicopter method, according to the company.

“It made our jobs easier, more efficient and a lot safer because now we don’t have to put humans in the ravines and gorges to try to find the old wire,” Rufus Jackson, Duke Energy vice president of distribution, construction, and maintenance said in an article published on the company’s site. “Basically we have the new pre-line hung up, and now we have something to connect to and finish the restoration.”

The Drones Can Handle It

Duke Energy has been using drones in the United States since 2015 for inspecting solar panels, wind turbines, transmission lines, and other structures, the company says. They tested drone process for restringing lines in North Carolina and Indiana before going to Puerto Rico.

Drones can also handle the inspection of boilers at large plants. In 2016, ConEdison started testing drones that could carry inspection cameras inside towering boilers that produce steam for large New York City buildings, including the Empire State Building, Grand Central Terminal, and the World Trade Center.

The same year, GreenTech Media called drones “game-changing” for renewable energy. Infrared cameras mounted on the flying robots can help identify problems at a solar farm so quickly. Likewise, the article noted, drones can examine wind turbine blades for wear and tear while they’re turning. Last year, Siemens and drone startup SkySpecs began collaborating for onshore and offshore applications, Xconomy’s Sarah Schmid Stevenson reported.

Drone Challenges Remain

The Energy Drone Coalition Summit took place in Houston, Texas, last summer and focused on drones for the oil and gas, power, mining, and chemical markets. The gathering highlighted use cases and solutions, but also illuminated some of the main challenges around the technology. Security is one.

“Previously, companies could maintain secure perimeters around their facilities either through fencing or, in the case of an offshore facility, natural aquatic boundaries,” the Society of Petroleum Engineers publication Oil and Gas Facilities reported from the conference. “Cameras and security personnel could spot developing problems and address them in a reasonable amount of time.” Drones can find vulnerabilities and make an attack easier.

Other challenges include adoption and drone operation skills. As Power Magazine’s Sonal Patel reported this year, the learning curve was a major barrier for many in the industry. So was finding the right talent to pilot the unmanned aerial vehicles.

“Having real skill on staff helps reduce human and technical errors, which could have grave repercussions, for example, if a drone crashes into a power line or other critical infrastructure, risking costly outages,” Patel wrote.

Looking to the Future

For Puerto Rico, Duke Energy says its team had considered one other line restringing method before going with the drones: using a shotgun to send a brass projectile attached to a lightweight nylon cord. However, the technique is limited to 800 feet and not always accurate. With the drones, one managed to string a 1,200-foot cord.

Given their capabilities, drones are likely to be tapped for more energy-related applications. “This project is starting in the aviation services group, but on the horizon, we can see some groups in transmission and distribution using this,” Duke Energy unmanned aircraft system team member Jacob Velky told the company.

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