All electric utilities must have an effective way to conduct transmission line inspections. The greater the efficiency of the inspection process, the greater the level of reliability. This is why more and more utilities are deploying aerial tactics to conduct the necessary inspections.
Many utilities have started experimenting with drones for this purpose. But at this point, drones have limitations, including but not limited to difficulty maneuvering them remotely, ambiguous FAA rules and regulations, and the ever-present risk of mechanical failures that cause crashes.
Alternative Method for Transmission Line Inspections
An alternative to drone technology is being pursued by Xcel Energy, which will soon be utilizing helicopters for transmission line inspections. The company, which operates a whopping 7k miles of high voltage transmission lines in the Midwest, is targeting one of the largest transmission lines in Minnesota (500kv), and the helicopter inspection method is compliant with all federal regulations. The inspection is designed to assess the physical structure as well as encroachment issues from nearby buildings and trees. Helicopters will be able to fly within 50 feet of the line for a closeup view.
From my perspective, aerial inspections, whether via drones or helicopters, are of tremendous value in terms of maintaining the reliability of the grid. Not only does this benefit the utility from an emergency preparedness perspective, but it also benefits customer and regulator satisfaction. The bottom line is that I applaud Xcel Energy’s strategy and I hope that other electric utilities follow suit and deploy tactics for aerial transmission line inspections.