Drones key to a successful vegetation management program for utilities
— by Jacob Goodman, UAS Quality Assurance (QA) Inspector, Spright
As utility infrastructure ages, it grows more susceptible to damage and faults that threaten service continuity. Utility constructs in rural areas or communities with dense vegetation face a particular type of concern when trees and shrubs become overgrown and interfere with the safe and reliable operation and maintenance of utility structures and power lines.
Monitoring foliage growth and identifying potential hazards are key to a successful vegetation management program. Failure to control vegetation can result in dangerous conditions that may directly lead to downed power lines and fires, but also impact the ability of workers to safely access power lines for routine maintenance and repairs.
To address these issues, most electric utilities conduct regular inspections and trimming of trees and other vegetation near power lines. This is typically done by teams of workers on foot or in trucks, who manually inspect the area and make decisions about which trees or branches need to be trimmed or removed. Helicopters are also routinely employed to conduct inspections from above. Both of these methods can prove inefficient in terms of time, cost, and resource allocation.
Drones have the potential to improve this process in several ways:
- Drones equipped with cameras can quickly and easily survey large areas of land, identifying problem areas that need to be addressed. This results in significant time savings over manual inspections.
- Drones can reach areas that may be difficult for humans or even manned aircraft to access. For example, drones can be used to inspect power lines in mountainous or densely forested areas, or to assess the condition of transmission towers in remote locations.
- Unmanned aircraft can fly closer to the utility lines, obtaining better data through more focused and accurate images.
- Drones can be equipped with advanced cameras and sensors that can detect abnormal changes in vegetation and also identify potential faults or hazards on lines, poles, and other equipment – making the entire operation more economical and efficient.
- Use of unmanned aircraft is inherently safer and greener than traditional methods