European utilities using long-distance drones for grid maintenance

Beyond the line of site (BVLOS) prototypes, together with advanced drone technologies are becoming increasingly popular amongst European utilities to improve power grid inspections.

Utilities such as EDF’s subsidiary RTE in France and Snam in Italy are conducting field tests with BVLOS to scout lengthy stretches of pipelines.

Snam have begun using drones in the Apennine hills around Genoa and RTE has been testing a long-distance drone to inspect 50km of transmission lines. The drone sends back data to allow technicians to create a virtual model of a section of the grid.

With the increasing shift to renewable energy, the current use of helicopters fitted with cameras and basic drones is no longer providing the range required for effective grid inspections.

Advanced drone technologies are needed to monitor the added connections required for linking renewable sources to electrical grids.

Spain’s Iberdrola is investing 500,000 in the technology of startup drone maker Arborea Intellbird.

“It’s not about the money, our objective is to learn as much as possible,” said Agustin Delgado, Iberdrola’s chief innovation and sustainability officer. “That has a lot more value than the $70 million invested thus far.”

He was making reference to rival utilities, who are investing more in venture capital projects than innovation.

According to Michal Mazur, a partner at consultancy PwC: “It’s a real game-changer, they’re [drones] 100 times faster than manual measurement, more accurate than helicopters and with AI devices on board, could soon be able to fix problems.”

According to Navigant Research, the total market for all drones and robotics for transmission and distribution segments is expected to reach $13.2 billion by 2026. Utility investment will increase with the growth of power networks and drone fleets needed to inspect them.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is looking to simplify the regulatory framework needed to own and operate BVLOS.

Special permits need to be gained in order to operate drones safely and minimise the risk associated with airborne inspections.

In April this year, Xcel Energy became the first American utility to gain approval for BVLOS flights.