There was. Drones.
Jamil’s eureka moment was the beginning of Duke’s first use of aerial drones to restring power lines. The method has been used in remote, hard-to-access jungles of
Duke, headquartered in
“We’re at the starting line for this,” said
Duke Energy is just one example of the expanding use of drones in the energy industry as power, pipeline and production companies turn to robotics to cut costs and to keep workers out of dangerous situations. Drones today are increasingly used for inspections, surveying pipeline and transmission line routes, and gathering visual data detailing the topography of areas where power lines and pipelines might run or crews might do repair work.
Drones keep tabs on solar farms, using infrared technology that captures heat signatures to determine whether individual panels are working. In the not too distant future, aerial drones will likely head offshore, allowing companies to check deepwater rigs without leaving offices in places like
“Over time,” Henry said, “we will find uses for them in many more places.”
The adoption of drones has come slowly not only in the energy business, but also other industries, in large part because of the wait for the
The rules were enacted in 2016, setting the parameters of how, where and when drones can fly without interfering with commercial air traffic. Before that, companies had to go through a long process to seek waivers from the
With the ebbing of the regulatory uncertainty, companies that provide drone services are looking to expand, with many eyeing opportunities in the energy industry. Among them are the
Arch Aerial was founded in 2013 by
“I figured there was a much easier way and repeatable way to capture that data,” Baker said. “That was with drones.”
He set out to start a company aimed at building low-cost drones to collect inexpensive and repeatable data. Arch Aerial’s first customer was a university for which Arch provided equipment. In 2015, Baker and his partners realized the pipeline industry was a likely customer for their services.
Today, Arch Aerial has five full-time employees, including three drone pilots. Baker said the company, whose pipeline customers include Henry Resources and a subsidiary of the
Arch Aerial drones conduct right-of-way inspections, which gather information about topography and alternate routes for pipelines and transmission lines. Once construction gets underway, drone surveys collect more data and use 3-D modeling to pinpoint the placement of each section of pipe. After construction, the drones document that companies have replaced grass, restored eroded areas and repaired other environmental damage.
Aerospec focuses almost exclusively on the energy industry. Li said he began formulating his plan for the company after the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010, which led him to think about how robotics could prevent such a tragedy. Robots, he figured, could conduct more frequent and thorough inspections to help detect hazards before they became tragedies.
Li’s company serves oil and gas clients through its
Aerospec increasingly specializes in surveying solar installations, where they collect hundreds of images. An algorithm developed by the company analyzes the images at high speeds.
Duke Energy also used drones to inspect solar farms, gathering data from sensors and using thermal cameras to pinpoint from where heat is emanating, an indication of whether the panel is functioning properly. Before drones were introduced, two technicians wearing hard hats, reflective vests and protective eyewear, walked from one combiner box, which includes all the wiring from a group of solar panels, to another. If an error was detected, a technician would need to follow the lines back to the panel to determine which one was defective.
In addition to the cost, said Velky, “There is risk associated with it because employees have to work with energized equipment.”
Industry officials say improving safety may well be the greatest attraction of drone technology, which would spare workers from some of the most dangerous jobs, such as working far above the ground, dealing with electrically charged equipment and trekking through mountainous or rough terrain.
“I only see it growing,” said Velky. “The really powerful part about drone technology is thinking about all the places that we could put a drone where a human doesn’t belong.”
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