Three Reasons Energy Utilities Should Consider Using UAVs | Black & Veatch

Leverage Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles for Engineering, Construction, Operations and Maintenance

Three Reasons Energy Utilities Should Consider Using UAVs

Virtually every industry is utilizing Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and reality capture technology. First responders, environmental scientists and even farmers use UAVs and thermal imaging to streamline their operations. In the power sector, forward-thinking engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) firms are using UAVs and reality capture technology to optimize design, permitting, construction and maintenance for utilities across the country. Energy utilities should consider the following three reasons to utilize UAVs for the construction of new infrastructure and operations of existing assets:

1. Prioritize Safety

Since utility poles were first conceived decades ago, it’s been an iconic image: an energy utility’s lineman carefully climbs to perilous heights to assess transmission lines and hardware. With the application of aerial UAV technology, the risk of this labor-intensive and potentially dangerous work can be reduced. These are a few cases where energy utilities may consider leveraging UAVs and reality capture technology to prioritize personnel safety:

  • Assess high-voltage power line damage after a severe weather event

  • Monitor equipment located in confined spaces

  • Evaluate the structural integrity of tower-mounted equipment

  • Perform vegetation management to reduce wildfire risk

  • Make informed, data-based decisions during emergency situations

Mitigate Access Limitations

Access limitations of infrastructure assets (due to location or asset type) are increasing the use of ground-based UAV technology to minimize risk to utility personnel. With UAVs and other remote-enabled technology, these types of inspections can be done without placing humans at dangerous heights. Aerial footage can be reviewed in real-time from the ground. These concepts don’t just apply to operations and maintenance (O&M) but for the construction of new infrastructure as well.

Manage Outages

Energy utilities deliver essential services to our communities; even the most well-planned service outage has associated safety concerns. Without reliable power, everything in our society comes to a screeching halt. Businesses cannot operate and the safety and well-being of community members is at risk. UAVs reduce risks to community members by allowing utilities to detect, isolate and repair damaged infrastructure with minimal and more effective shutoff procedures. By optimizing O&M practices, UAVs reduce outages and equipment downtime.

2. Save Time and Money

UAVs and reality capture technology replace outdated and inefficient methods of surveying and inspections. Before beginning a construction project, UAVs can be used for accurate photographic site investigations and terrain monitoring. With this new data, engineers can proactively mitigate construction issues by making design changes ahead of time – saving money by eliminating re-work in the field and optimizing the project schedule. The benefits extend beyond the construction timeline; this technology offers a new way to visualize data, creating a topographic and underground utilities digital twin that can be used throughout the infrastructure lifecycle.

Optimize Efficiency

UAVs save time and money on equipment inspections and structural evaluations. For example, a power plant may typically need to schedule an outage and rent scaffolding to inspect equipment high off the ground; using UAVs instead eliminates the scaffolding costs and associated manpower, in addition to the revenue that would have been lost during equipment downtime.

Collecting data via ground-based UAVs is faster than collecting data on foot; this data can be assessed on a handheld tablet in real-time, empowering energy utilities to make informed O&M decisions. During construction, efficiency improvements may include:

  • Quality control monitoring for change-order management

  • Volumetric calculations of dirt cut/fill to managing hauling costs during construction

  • Terrain change assessments after storms to facilitate re-design of grading plans as necessary (mitigating schedule delays)

Increase Accuracy

The growing number of operating assets creates unique challenges for energy utilities. O&M is evolving, with geographically dispersed assets and reliability expected from customers. UAVs, combined with advanced analytics of the data collected, help utilities detect issues, prioritize responses, balance the costs and generate the most effective return on investment (ROI). This ROI from UAVs and reality capture technology is further realized through quicker schedules, reduced outages and equipment downtime, less on-site personnel and more reliable data. As geospatial technology continues to advance, the overall accuracy of ground-based UAV data increases as well. Sophisticated cameras, sensors and GPS integrated within UAVs are becoming more affordable — enabling highly accurate data at a lower cost. With the appropriate data processing techniques, accuracy can be expected to be within less than a quarter of an inch.

3. Enhance Transparency

UAVs and reality capture technology expose the activities of EPC firms – in a good way. Energy utilities often choose to contract with EPC firms not only for construction projects, but also for O&M of existing assets either in an advisory or staff augmentation capacity.

Monitor Construction Activities

During the construction process, the EPC firm can monitor project site activity and materials management, closely manage subcontractors and hold the team accountable by carefully documenting on-site safety and progress in alignment with the schedule. As clients, energy utilities have access to the same data mapping program to monitor the construction progress and schedule with their own leadership teams. From an environmental perspective, UAVs and reality capture technology facilitate compliance with regulatory requirements. For example, UAVs can be used to monitor and mitigate water runoff and erosion concerns to protect surrounding farmland, wetlands, and rivers.

Support the Full Infrastructure Lifecycle

Data visualization drives action throughout the infrastructure lifecycle. The real magic happens after a UAV flight has been completed. For example, energy utilities can use UAVs to create a geospatially accurate digital twin of the entire construction site; this 3D model can be continuously updated to optimize O&M throughout the infrastructure lifecycle. By deploying UAVs for O&M purposes, stakeholders can see performance outliers, address them as needed and integrate feedback loops into operational best practices. Sharing historic and current data with all project stakeholders encourages effective communication and planning; accurate, consistent, and clear data visualization allows personnel to identify issues or risks that would otherwise be missed.

Next Steps: Collaborate with an Expert Advisory Partner to Guide the UAV Technology Journey

Leveraging innovations in UAV technology and capabilities offers energy utilities a significant ROI through minimized risk, informed decision-making, optimized schedules and operational transparency. Organizations that are interested in implementing UAV technology may be concerned about training personnel, making major process changes, and procuring equipment and software. Fortunately, expert advisory partners are available to make the process easy so utilities can enjoy the benefits without the hassle. Consider working with an established EPC firm that offers the following in-house capabilities:

  • Established UAV fleet management system with emphasis on safety

  • Airspace regulation considerations

  • Support in navigating regulatory agency permit and waiver applications

  • In-house subject matter experts that are knowledgeable about a variety of aircraft types

  • Rigid competency training and testing for uncrewed aircraft pilots

  • Accessible cloud-based software to collect and visualize data

  • Topographic digital twins, capturing all vegetation and underground utilities

Backed by over 100 years of innovation in the construction industry, Black & Veatch employs a growing network of FAA-certified UAV pilots to better serve our power, water and telecommunication clients. We employ uncrewed aircraft pilots across North America, with expertise in 3D point cloud mapping, Real-Time Kinematic (RTK) mapping, Post-Processing Kinematic (PPK) mapping, LiDAR and infrared. Having pilots who specialize in different aspects of projects makes Black & Veatch's UAV Charter and team of pilots uniquely qualified to provide recommendations throughout all phases of the infrastructure lifecycle. Contact us to discuss how UAVs can be used to address construction, engineering and O&M for energy utilities.

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