Let’s face it: if you eliminate people, you save a lot of time and money. This is a lesson eagerly learned by U. S. utility companies who are itching to use drones for dangerous, time-consuming and expensive work. A futuristic-looking example of utility drones can be seen on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S5sVcwBKLeU
U. S. electrical companies, for example, believe that drones have great potential for inspecting remote, often dangerous power lines and transmission towers. To that end, the Electric Power Research Institute held a 3-day workshop in the Catskill Mountains to assist several utilities in selecting the optimum drones for their needs.
At first blush, the cost seems high but it is inexpensive compared to using human labor. The system currently tested by Consumers Energy of Michigan costs approximately $10,000 and its sensor attachments range from $3,000 – $100,000+. However, the cost of human inspection, mapping and measurement is $300,000+ per year. Consequently, the drone is an attractive cost-cutting measure.
Though enthused about the drones, U. S. utilities are somewhat hampered by federal regulations. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has strict requirements for commercial users:
– The operator must be a licensed pilot;
– The drone must be operated in the pilot’s sight line;
– The drone must weight under 55 lbs.; and
– Maximum allowable altitude is 200 feet.
Relatively few utility companies currently meet the federal requirements. However, the FAA is considering adjusting the requirements. Even with the current regulations, utility companies such as the New York Power Authority plan to begin using drones for inspections as early as spring 2016.
The electrical industry is not the only business sector eager to use drones. Companies in oil, agriculture and construction are also examining the drone’s applications to their work.
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