The Power-Puff Bots: Drones in Power and Utilities Industry

Drones in Power and Utilities Industry: Drones are finding many applications in the power and utilities industry to improve or replace inefficient processes and bring about a complete business transformation. Read on.

Imagine lazing around on a Sunday afternoon on your couch under the comfort of your AC, gearing up to watch the grand finale of your favorite TV show. Or, your already frustrated mother being just a grind away from the finish line of her daily cook-athon. It is not mere coincidence, you say, that the competent authorities in all their wisdom conspired to give you a power-cut right at such moments. This moment is surreal, for, it is the time you relate to God and hopefully feel his emotions when he said, “Let there be light!”

Largely unheard of in the developed parts of the world, a power outage is commonplace in India. Although we have made remarkable progress in electrifying the rural and urban India alike in the past decade, regularity, reliability, and consistency of power have been a significant challenge. Uninterrupted electricity to every individual is still a dream we are chasing; after all, it is a dream worth chasing. India has surplus power generation capacity. However, the infrastructure for its transmission and distribution to the end-user is inadequate. The diversity of population vis-à-vis cultural and socio-economic conditions further complicates the problem. This brings us to the major area of concern of India’s Energy sector – Power Theft.

‘Shocking’ Reality

Power theft has been a major issue that has plagued the Indian Energy sector for decades. Though power theft is considered a criminal act and stringent laws against it exist, the menace is hardly under control, and the danger still looms large.

According to the annual Emerging Markets Smart Grid: Outlook 2015 study by the Northeast Group, LLC, the world loses US$89.3 billion annually to electricity theft. The highest losses were in India ($16.2 billion), followed by Brazil ($10.5 billion) and Russia ($5.1 billion).

While India loses more money to theft than any other country in the world, the highest contributor to this loss is Maharashtra. In this state alone, $2.8 billion per year is lost. Pan-India, total transmission and distribution losses are close to 23%, and some states’ losses are upwards of 50%.

In 2014, an award-winning Indian documentary by the name “Katiyabaaz” exposed the world of power theft and their organized ways of functioning in the state of UP, the largest Indian state. Electricity theft and meter tampering is the reason why there is huge gap in demand and supply. It also puts the Indian power distribution sector in poor financial conditions. The energy lost that we cannot account for comes in the way of our economic development. With the advancements in metering technologies, new ideas of illegal electricity theft are also being introduced by consumers. At this rate, the power distribution sector will never see the right profits. AI-based monitoring, smart, and tamper-proof meters are effective, but cannot replace physical surveillance.

Application of Drones in the Power Sector

Right now, there can be no better substitute for physical surveillance when it comes to handling the power theft menace. However, considering the sheer size of the land and inaccessible terrain where the transmission lines are laid, it becomes practically impossible to ensure constant human monitoring. Powerlines and the columns need to be regularly inspected for any failures to identify and prevent danger.

The practicality, applicability, and flexibility that drones offer are widely acknowledged throughout the world, be it any field of application. Drones are now being used in the Energy sector, with few successful experiments and implementations already in progress. Drones can be used for various applications in both generation and distribution side of the sector. Major areas where drones can be employed include, but are not limited to:

1. Powerplant mapping and inspection
2. Corridor Mapping
3. Corona Detection
4. Substation Static Line Inspection
5. Intermittent Power

Drones in Mapping Applications

Drones have been widely used for mapping and survey for various applications. The economy of effort and the simplicity they offer in such applications is phenomenal. Power generation units are generally set up in inaccessible and non-urban environments dictated by various natural factors, such as proximity of the source (reservoir/natural waterfall if hydel, coal factories if thermal, and large water body if nuclear), accessibility to the nearest power grid/sub-station, administrative boundaries of states, etc. In such cases, employing drones in powerplant mapping and corridor mapping is of paramount importance. Drones provide exceptional advantages, such as accessibility to otherwise inhospitable areas. The level of detail and accuracy of the data collected via land surveys using drones is also unmatched by any other method we currently have. 3D models and topographic maps can be generated on demand, which can provide invaluable insight into the overall lay of the land enhancing decision making regarding the layout of the plant.

Inspection of Transmission Corridors
Powerplants and the power lines need regular monitoring to ensure the safety of the system. Pin-point accuracy in mapping the transmission corridor is possible with drones equipped with LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors. The data obtained from the drones can then be processed to generate an accurate map of the transmission corridor for further regular monitoring. This enables you to have precise lat-long information of spots in your system that have sustained damage or are in need of maintenance, saving you from prolonged system inefficiencies.

The field of vision of a drone, as well as its mobility is way higher than inspection personnel on the ground. This means that you’d have access to a much wider field of view, and all this information can be made available without having to suspend operations, as is often the case when manual inspections are scheduled. Since no personnel are needed near the potentially dangerous equipment or in the remote areas where they are set up, the staff are freed from the risk that they currently deal with in carrying out these inspection procedures.

Not only that, there are several logistical advantages of deploying drones instead of ground personnel for inspection of transmission corridors. Since the entire process can be automated, the time taken to conduct inspections can be slashed by factors as high as 66%. And since a handful of drones can match the functional capacity of a vast network of ground personnel, the costs involved in these maintenance procedures is also cut down significantly, even north of 80% savings in the first year of operation itself.

Drones for Powerplant Inspection

The transmission lines, pylons and the towers in the mapped corridor can further be inspected carefully and regularly by the drones with a combination of high-resolution cameras, LiDAR, and thermal imaging. Also, the capability of drones to reach humanly inaccessible areas with ease provides great flexibility and robustness by leaving no blind-spots in inspection. An integral and important part of the inspection forms the Substation Static Line Inspection. The static pole/line is one of the most important structures in a substation. It is erected to protect the entire station from lightning. Their integrity (both structural and functional) is critical for the safety of the station, and hence their inspection becomes important. Drones can be employed for their inspection with high-definition cameras and thermal imaging to identify hot spots, poor connections, damaged components, and other security concerns.

The field of view for vertical assets like transmission towers is increased by at least 50% when using drones. And again, with the increased visibility you could collect larger volumes of real-time information. The increased efficiency and reduced dependence on large teams can save nearly 61% of costs currently spent. Drones can even help coordinate security and maintenance procedures with the essential ground crews much more effectively.

The security surveillance of transmission lines can also be undertaken through drones, thereby reducing human effort and intervention. This can go a long way in collecting evidence for swiftly prosecuting the power-thieves and dismantling their infrastructure.

Corona Detection & Intermittent Power Detection

A corona discharge is an electrical discharge brought on by the ionization of a fluid such as air surrounding a conductor that is electrically charged. Corona discharges occur in high-voltage systems unless electric field strength is limited. In many high voltage applications, corona is an unwanted side effect. Corona discharge is an economically significant waste of energy for utilities.

As corona generally occurs in the UV spectrum, drones equipped with UV cameras can identify, localize, and detect coronas for further action. This would have been a much more time-consuming affair otherwise. Notably, this has been experimentally verified by NASA.

Any intermittent losses in power due to various reasons can be detected and identified by the drones either through thermal imaging or cameras for timely rectification.

Conclusion

In order to restore the way the power distribution sector works in India, drones can both prevent power theft, accidents, and damage, and also help “cure” the ailments that exist in inaccessible areas where power lines are laid. Drones can provide the kind of access and intelligence that human beings cannot provide through physical surveillance in the same amount of time.

About 30-50% cost and time otherwise spent in man hours can be saved by using drones for powerline inspection. The incredible data accuracy of drones comes with real-time imaging capabilities, video feed, zoom, thermal and 4k imaging technology, that also directly transmits to the ground station. All this can happen even while electric towers remain functional.

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