Unlocking the potential of drones in utilities

Drones will be used more widely if the elements of time, cost and safety are demonstrated effectively to deliver a solid business case and Utilities companies are the best equipped to do so

Asam Khan, chief executive officer, Exponent Technology Services
Asam Khan, chief executive officer, Exponent Technology Services

By Asam Khan

The adoption of drones (or UAVs) across a wide swathe of industries represents a logical trend in the natural evolution of this budding technology, with the Utilities sector perfectly positioned to benefit the most. Yet, despite the growing rush to use drones, creating tangible business value is still proving to be a challenge, when we move beyond capturing aerial images and video.

Drones will be used more widely if the elements of time, cost and safety are demonstrated effectively to deliver a solid business case and Utilities companies are the best equipped to do so.

Some examples of successful drone use by Utilities companies include the inspection of power lines using thermography, insulator pollution detection using pattern recognition, solar cell fault detection and cleansing, water sample return and infrastructure inspections.  In all of these cases, drones have the potential for expediting processes, reducing cost and enhancing safety via the reduction of risk, compared to existing methods. Very few other industries can find such a rich source of applications where drones can deliver so much for so little. 

Drones provide a unique data acquisition channel and their vantage point allows them to gather a plethora of data in unprecedented detail, however, it’s vital to remember it is the data, transformed into information that represents the value - not the drone itself.  The integration of this information into an organisation's decision making process is ultimately what will drive the technology's growth and maturation. Drones provide a means of streamlining the information supply chain, getting information to decision makers and enabling them to improve their decision quality.

Utilities companies need to be cognisant of the current state of the technology and its regulation.  The widespread use of recreational grade drones for many applications creates a number of issues, especially in terms of reliability and they should really only be used as technology demonstrators, sparingly at that. As with any new technology, close attention must be paid to ensure that in reducing one hazard a new one isn’t introduced.

Most organisations (inside and outside of the Utilities industry) have adopted a fragmented approach to investigating drones, with separate departments within a single enterprise all acquiring or experimenting according to their own particular area of focus. Often the programme is championed by an individual within the organisation who has some recreational experience with drones. For obvious reasons, the failure to implement a holistic approach will result in a sub-optimal solution.  Organisations would benefit from a far more unified and logical drone strategy that looks at ways of developing solid business cases, backed up by a scientifically driven evaluation programme to assess the results. A centralised R&D effort can then eventually be devolved to individual departments when the time is right.

Finally, government regulation is a wild card that can act as a catalyst or a handbrake and, while drones are still an emergent field, authorities are also struggling to adapt. The Utilities industry has a distinct opportunity to share its experiences with government regulators and become a contributing partner in the development of rules and regulations related to this technology.  No other industry has the capability of utilise drones in such a wide spectrum of environments allowing companies to garner meaningful statistics to aid the authorities in developing a coherent and rational framework.

Drones represent a fascinating new means of acquiring, processing and disseminating data, a strength that regional Utilities must fully take advantage of.  As sensors shrink and computational power increases the applications will only grow exponentially.  Utilities companies, with their traditional focus on reliability, safety and cost efficiencies are a prime area in which the technology can be evaluated and proven. With their strong links and relationships with governments, they are also well positioned to provide insight and guidance on how such a promising technology can be safely introduced to a wider audience. 

Asam Khan, chief executive officer, Exponent Technology Services.


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