Drones Nearing Take Off for Energy Managers

by | Aug 19, 2016

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Image: Lino Schmid & Moira Prati

Add drones to the list of things that have the potential to help energy managers do their jobs more easily and efficiently. In fact, they should be put near the top of the list.

Drones – variously called unmanned aerial vehicle or unmanned aerial system by those in the industry – to this point have been mostly used by hobbyists. They are now, however, beginning to find their commercial footing.

A drone can inspect assets that are dangerous and/or difficult to reach — or completely inaccessible to humans. The fact that they are airborne avoids time-consuming preparations, such as building scaffolding to inspect walls. For energy managers, these devices can be used to conduct higher perspective inspections of rooftop assets or even the inside of equipment that have large cavities.

FacilitiesNet offers three examples of uses of drones by Duke Energy: Drones, the story says, are inspecting large boilers at power plants, keeping tabs of the health of the thousands of panels on solar farms and assessing damage in its operating area after storms. ConEdison has posted video shot by a drone inside a boiler.

The drone industry, which still is young, got needed direction in mid-June. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released “Part 107,” which are rules for commercial use of drones weighing less than 55 pounds. The story at Air & Space said that initial recommendation that operators need to have a pilot’s license was dropped and less onerous rules were adopted.

The rules mandate that the drones can operate only to 400 feet in daylight and at a top seed of 100 miles per hour. Pilots must be 16 years old, maintain line-of-sight contact with the drone and get out of the way of other craft. Some waivers to the rules are possible.

The Toledo Blade, in a story on the status of drones, implied that the FAA move is a significant milestone that will make commercial use of drones far more common.

Tremco Roofing & Building Maintenance offers a look at a possible future of drones and energy management. The company owns three SkyBEAM UAVs, which were developed by Industrial SkyWorks, a Toronto-based company. The FAA recently gave Tremco – which has offices in Toronto and Beachwood, OH – an exemption enabling it to run the drones at night. This enables it to perform infrared scans of roofs at night, according to Cleveland.com. The goal is to find issues such as deteriorating facades or leaking roofs.

A single drone can cover 1 million square feet in an hour, the story says. The technology is developed by humans but, in the final analysis, can do the job better than they can:

The UAVs are equipped with “an exceptionally high resolution video camera that can easily read the fine print on a warranty from 50 feet,” SkyBEAM said. “This camera can map potential building problems, such as gaps or tears in the roof, tiny cracks or movement in the façade, deteriorating concrete, and the need for appropriate rooftop safety equipment.”

So far, much of the action is with energy companies. For instance, TribLive posted a story about the use of drones at one of its Pennsylvania plants:

For a few seconds at a time, it hovered at various spots about 15 feet away from the side of the massive heat recovery generator and cooler at FirstEnergy Corp.’s gas-fired power plant in Springdale. The camera took video and still photos of metal joints that allow exterior pipes to maintain good connections with the building as it expands and contracts with heat.

The story said it would have taken humans about six hours to collect the same data. And, of course, doing so remotely is safer.

Obviously, there is great overlap and similarities between what energy producing and energy consuming companies do. It only is a matter of time before the technology gains traction among energy managers.

It also is fair to say that energy managers should participate in testing and trials. The attributes drones bring to the table suggest that they will become a powerful tool for energy managers – and relatively quickly. Done’s ability to zoom high above a facility and burrow deep within its infrastructure will be a power tool for energy managers.

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