Use of Drones Improving Energy Delivery

by Daetta Jones
Ameren Illinois

A major storm has impacted the Peoria area. Hundreds of power poles and wires are down, and some streets have been closed off as state and local officials attempt to clear debris. Up the road, a major sub-transmission line has been damaged, impacting electric service for thousands of customers. Local officials estimate it will be at least three hours before Ameren Illinois trucks will be allowed in to inspect the damaged equipment and begin to repair it.

But soon, the low hum of an unmanned aircraft whirs above as workers back at the operating center get their first peak—on video—of the scene that awaits their crews.

As a company focused on continuous improvement, Ameren Illinois actively searches for commercially available technology and new ideas to improve customer service and enhance our natural gas and electric service delivery.

For the past 18 months, a team of coworkers has studied how drones could be implemented in daily operations, as well as post-storm restoration efforts. The technology has been available for some time, but the Federal Aviation Administration had long required an individual drone operator to obtain a pilot’s license. The agency recently changed its requirements, and now would-be pilots must pass a test before being able to legally fly a drone.

We are excited about the use of drone technology and can see a number of ways we can use it to benefit our business and residential customers:

  • Accessing rural areas. Today, when we receive reports of downed power lines in heavily-wooded areas, crews are called in to walk the line to do a visual inspection. This exposes workers to unseen hazards. By mounting a camera onto a drone, a trained operator can direct the drone to the site of the damage and complete the inspection. Crews on the ground can watch real-time video from the drone and know exactly where the problem areas are, resulting in faster and safer restoration.
  • Inspecting damage to power poles. It's not uncommon to get reports of damaged or broken pole tops, cross arms and conductors throughout our service territory. Where today’s workers must enter the energized zone to make a visual inspection, trained drone operators will soon be able to fly the line and observe the damage. We can see this technology improving the safety of our coworkers, saving us time… and saving our customers money.
  • Surveying facility sites. Picking a suitable piece of land on which to build a new gas or electric facility is among the most important decisions in the development process. With drone technology, we'll be able to fly the entire property, identify any constraints, and ensure that the land we select is the best fit for our project.

Our goal is to eventually have a drone in every operating center, with coworkers properly trained to operate the technology. iBi

Daetta Jones is Director of Division Operations for Ameren Illinois.

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