OPPD has added a high-tech tool to its toolbox for maintaining transmission lines.
Starting this year, the utility will use an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) – more commonly known as a drone – to perform aerial inspections of transmission lines. These inspections were previously done using a helicopter.
OPPD began exploring the technology in 2012 as an opportunity to improve safety and reliability, perform more frequent inspections and see an overall cost savings. As drone technology evolved over the years, it became more cost-effective to implement.
The unit purchased by OPPD is able to essentially fly itself while personnel direct it from the ground, utilizing a camera to get a look at affected equipment. Operators program an area for the inspections and determine boundaries for the unit. It cannot fly beyond the defined area. Unlike a helicopter, the drone will be able to fly in more adverse weather conditions, and can continue to fly in wind gusts of up to 50 miles per hour without having to land.
During the flight, the drone will send back information and video of the lines to a line maintenance technician on the ground controlling the unit. This connection is a highlight of the OPPD drone program, said Patrick Hutchinson, maintenance optimization engineer.
Line maintenance technicians are journeyman linemen specialized in performing these inspections.
“By being a lineman for 30-plus years, we can go out there and look at the information the camera’s giving us and get a very good idea of what component on the structure is broken or causing a problem,” said Mark Gorseth, a line maintenance technicians who will operate the drone.
Gorseth said safety is the biggest issue that contributed to implementing the drone program. The fact that it takes one or two OPPD personnel out of a helicopter and puts them on the ground eliminates a considerable safety risk.
Hutchinson said, to his knowledge, that OPPD may be the only utility in Nebraska to run a federally regulated program for drones in-house. Before the drone could be used in the field, OPPD personnel had to complete training with Oracle Aviation of Omaha to operate the units. The utility’s drones operate under a commercial (107) license for unmanned craft.