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Power line inspections - the past, present and future

Today’s society is highly dependent on electricity, both in terms of reliability and capacity. Many functions that are vital to a functioning society depend on electricity and cannot withstand blackouts for long, without major consequences. Examples of such functions are: communication and alarms, heating, trade and ability to pay, drinking water supply and transport.


While some parts of the grid are being dug down in order to make it more weather resilient, it is still much cheaper per kilometer to build overhead power lines. The majority of the existing grid is also still overhead, and significant investments into the grid are planned in the near future to meet the demand for increased capacity. This means that there will be millions of kilometers of overhead power lines in the next coming decades, and they won’t inspect themselves!


Until now, there have been two standard methods for inspecting overhead power lines: Walking the line by foot or getting a birds eye view from a helicopter. While using helicopters is the more efficient method of the two, it comes with some notable drawbacks – they pollute, scare wildlife and livestock, and put human lives at risk. Maybe most importantly, the results of these inspections are poor and many defects and issues are missed. Inspections from helicopters are manual and the outcome often consists of cluttered notes, scribbled on a map by a lineman sitting in the passenger seat.


A sign on a power line pole, warning helicopter pilots of an imminent crossing with a taller line. The helicopter flies just above the poles and the pilot has to stay alert at all times to avoid disaster.


What if you instead could access high quality data of your entire grid from the comfort of your office? Drones have the potential to offer just that, in a cost effective way!


The transition from helicopters to drones

We often hear news of how the drone market is like a ticking bomb, about to go off at any moment. While some markets like construction, real estate and insurance have already exploded, we believe that the time to shine for drones in long-range linear infrastructure inspections is here. But what are the main benefits of using drones?

  • Less pollution: Drones run on batteries instead of fuel, and have the potential of significantly reducing the carbon emissions that are unavoidable when inspecting the grid.

  • Safer: When helicopters are replaced with drones, linemen around the world no longer have to put themselves in harm's way. While drone pilots still have to get out in the field for the foreseeable future, they stay much safer on the ground than in the air.

  • Better data: Having access to high-quality inspection data of the entire grid is a game changer, as it enables critical defects to be detected much earlier than before. Coupled with AI, this also enables the field of predictive maintenance which could save utilities billions by preventing blackouts before they happen.


Why now?

There have been some major hurdles to overcome before drones can really replace helicopters. These hurdles are finally possible to overcome, and the main reasons for this are:

  • Advancements in drone hardware: The consumer market has driven a rapid increase of the capabilities of drones that are readily available on the market. Drones that fly longer, take better pictures and are more reliable are released every few months – a trend we believe will continue.

  • AI/Machine learning improvements: New and advanced methods of automatically detecting objects and faults in captured images promise a cost-effective way of handling the large amount of data which is produced by drone inspections.

  • Increased automation: High quality drone hardware with open integration capabilities opens the way for companies developing advanced automation software. This is a must-have when scaling and standardizing large scale inspections with drones, or as Obi-Wan put it: "Flying is for droids."

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  • Drone regulations: Immature regulations have long been the ultimate obstacle holding commercial drone usage back. While aviation safety cannot be rushed, we are finally seeing some light on the horizon, with the EU now adopting a common framework for drone regulations. This simplifies the process of obtaining the Beyond Visual Line of Sight permits which are crucial for conducting inspections of linear infrastructure with drones.



Our role

At Airpelago we aim to enable this transition by providing the number one support software for conducting large scale inspections of linear infrastructure with drones. Through this blog series, we want to give our view on what is best practice for power line inspections with drones. Stay tuned for the coming posts where we will go more in-depth.


Want to know more about us or get a demo of our software? Don't hesitate to reach out at hi@airpelago.com!