The Case For Drones in the Energy Sector
A drone is simply a tool. The true value lies in the data they acquire and how that data is utilised.
As the hype around drones starts to fade and their use becomes more commonplace, their true industrial value is being realised. Whilst media focus has been on aerial pizza deliveries and the like, innovative companies are leveraging this technology to their advantage, developing sensors and applying machine learning techniques to gather and process large amounts of data that would previously have been inaccessible to most.
As drones programs are adopted across the energy sector, companies are seeing a real return on investment. Better data streamlines decision making, increases efficiency and allows for better planning. Inspection, maintenance and repair costs are reduced whilst safety to personnel is increased by minimizing the number of hazardous man-hours.
The True Value of UAV Data
Enable Fast and Accurate Data Acquisition
Take solar farm inspections as an example. These are assets which can greatly benefit from aerial inspections. Often mounted at height or in large arrays, access can be hazardous or require days of data collection. To inspect a 10 MW solar farm could take weeks using conventional methods. The time of day and variable weather conditions could make for unreliable data.
An experienced operator will plan a route for the most efficient data acquisition. Using drone mounted infrared imaging, the same site could be imaged in a couple of hours with 99% accuracy.
Improve Safety and Efficiency
With the need for scaffolding and elevated platforms eliminated and personnel out of harm’s way, assets can remain operational during the inspection, providing more accurate data and reducing down-time.
Drones are changing the way we work. The ability to view assets digitally gives managers greater visibility over multiple sites in multiple locations. Navigating a high-resolution 3D model, they can inspect and report on sites located across the globe.
Using online portals and mobile apps, the latest data and reports can be easily shared with design teams and on-site construction/maintenance teams. Stakeholders can be kept up to speed with highly detailed reports incorporating maps, models and inspection analysis.
Enhance Asset Monitoring
One of the most valuable aspects of drone data is that it provides a permanent, accurate digital record, allowing O&M teams to perform year-on-year analysis on the health of their assets. The ability to easily compare these datasets allows teams to make smart decisions about future maintenance.
Real World Applications
Transmission and Distribution:
Transmission tower/line inspection
By conventional means, these can be time consuming and costly. A lineman would have to climb the tower to inspect the reported problem. The tower may be surrounded by difficult terrain or on private property, there may be a requirement for an elevated platform and trees may be blocking access. Such an inspection could take days to plan and execute. With a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), a licensed pilot and a suitable sensor, the tower could be inspected without issue and the problem identified within minutes.
Substation maintenance and inspection
Regular manned substation inspections require a shutdown to make the site safe. This can in some cases lead to a power outage. Aerial inspections combined with high-resolution optical and infrared imagery can shave days off an operation, eliminating the need for costly shutdowns.
Empowering your teams.
Providing adequate training and equipping teams with drones can allow for immediate fault assessment once an issue has been spotted from the ground. Eliminating the need for elevated platforms or rope access will reduce the risks involved.
It is imperative that correct training and licensing is obtained before operating a drone commercially. The correct permissions must be obtained from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority and strict documentation practices must be followed. It is recommended that you seek expert advice when setting up an in-house drone program.
Spectre UAV Concepts offer a consultancy service to help you integrate drones into your workflow.
Real World Applications
Wind and Solar
Planning and construction
During the planning phase, drones can be used for topographic modelling, site shading analysis, surface runoff/flooding risk assessments and soil type analysis, drastically reducing the time taken with ground-based methods.
Multiple aerial missions during the construction phase can provide progress reporting, project milestone validation, quality control and logistics planning for more efficient project management and stakeholder oversight.
Commissioning and asset transfer
Drones offer a cost effective and efficient means of understanding a sites operational health. Asset purchasers, financiers and energy off-takers have a limited amount of time to asses and accept new systems. A skilled pilot and intelligent planning will provide rapid identification on any systematic problems, giving stakeholders the information that they need to make informed decisions.
With annual inspections a requirement for most wind and solar plants, these vast arrays are set to benefit most from drone inspections. Often taking weeks to inspect via traditional methods, a trained pilot and well-planned mission can see the same information gathered over the space of a few of days. The data can then be analysed and delivered via an online portal. This enables asset change tracking over time. Onsite technicians can be granted access to these fault logs via a mobile app, allowing them to easily and rapidly locate and repair any issues.
Why? Where’s the Value?
Value Proposition by Sector
Transmission and Distribution
Carrying the correct sensor, a drone can capture detailed information about your assets helping to reduce maintenance costs, minimizing downtime and improving safety. Drones can inspect up to 8 kilometres of transmission poles per day in both RGB and infrared imagery.
Visual and infrared substation inspections can be carried out in 1-2 hours without the need for costly shutdowns.
Drone gathered data offers a much greater level of detail than ground or helicopter patrols (revealing rust, missing pins, pollen build-up or damage to insulators) as well as improved speed and safety over elevated platforms and rope access.
For commissioning, warranty, or regular maintenance, drone inspections are 95 percent more efficient and identify defects, tracker misalignment, shading, tower and substation conditions that traditional inspections might miss.
Drone inspections take less than 10 minutes per MW and save, on average, $1200/MW in costs, with larger sites saving more. Their higher accuracy can help improve a site’s energy production; one customer estimated $42,000 in additional revenue resulting from repairs typically missed by a manual inspection.
Inspection data can be sent to a convenient smartphone app, which allows maintenance personnel to easily route to damages on site and update inspection results directly from the field. This improves efficiency and reduces costly repair hours.
See our solar inspection document for further details.
Drone inspections can identify blade defects faster than traditional methods and improve productivity by catching problems before they lead to failures. With inspections taking between 15 and 30 minutes per turbine, downtime due to maintenance can be reduced by 75%.
Drones on average find 15-20% more defects than ground-based inspection crews, lowering the risk of failure and energy loss. Class 5 damage, such as a lightning strike at the blade tip, can lead to 6-8% efficiency loss and 500 percent increase in failure rate, while class 3 damage, such as a trailing edge split, can result in 3-6 percent efficiency loss and 200 percent increase in failure rate. A drone program with regular inspections can allow you to track asset health, and resolve maintenance issues early, improving productivity as a result. Having visibility over all sites allows for the comparison of component manufacturers and highlights recurring damage, allowing preventative measures to be implemented.
There are Some Limitations
Drones are rapidly being adopted by the energy sector and they provide cost-effective solutions to many problems, but like any technology, they do have their shortcomings that should be considered before implementing a drone program.
Weather can put a halt to any inspection, drone related or otherwise. High winds can cause UAVs to deplete batteries faster and can even put a stop to operations all together.
Location may pose a challenge, there are limitations put in place by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) that restrict flights in certain locations – near airports, military bases or populated areas. Authorisation to carry out flights in these areas may be obtained through the appropriate channels (Form101-09), providing procedures are implemented and outlined in the company’s Operations Manual.
Not everyone can fly a drone. Flying a drone for a business is not the same flying recreationally. Operator skill and knowledge are key to successful and safe data collection. Altitude, flight path, weather conditions and equipment calibration can have a dramatic effect on the quality of your data. Inexperienced pilots flying too close to assets or losing control of the aircraft can result in serious damage or injury.
Looking to set up an in-house drone program?
There are several nuances and considerations to consider before spending thousands of dollars on a drone. Before you invest in the technology and spend hours reading instructional material, consider partnering with a company that has already put in the hard miles, understands your business and the latest technology. We will guide you through the registration and licensing process and tailor your UAV program specifically to your needs.
What to consider:
How specialist is the task / how skilled must the operator be?
Do you have the resources to provide the training and oversight required to maintain an efficient UAV program?
Will an in-house drone program provide the best return on investment?
Is your specific use case may be best suited to a specialist service provider?
Could a combined approach be best for you?
Request a Free Consultation with an Advisor