UT brings drones to Austin Energy

October 27, 2016

A UT research group is improving the safety and efficiency of inspecting power lines by connecting an Austin energy company with new technology: drones.

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Illustration Credit: Albert Lee, The Daily Texan

UT’s IC² Institute finds innovative technology from developing countries around the world, commercializes these technologies and then applies them to problems in the US, according to IC²’s Global Coordination Group program manager James Vance. Earlier this month, IC² collaborated with Austin Energy and an Indian company named Arcturus to test drones developed by Arcturus.

The drones are unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, that carry sensors and cameras that capture images of components on power lines. The drones then use a pattern recognition algorithm, similar to other facial recognition software, to compare images of the power line components to new and damaged hardware, with the goal of determining if the lines or towers need to be repaired, Vance said. The drones also have a GPS system that shows exactly where the damage is located.

Right now, the drone program is focusing on transmission lines, which Vance said are the taller towers outside of power stations that can reach heights of 300 feet. Usually, ground crews with Austin Energy have to assess any damage to these transmission lines from the ground with powerful binoculars, but the damage can be difficult to see, he said.

“Sometimes the defect is on the top and can only be seen from the top,” Vance said. “Sometimes it’s from the side, but you have to get right alongside of it at the same elevation to be able to see the defect rather than being all the way down at the ground, 100 or 200 feet below the object.”

Austin Energy power system engineer Peter Soosay said Austin Energy has 600 miles of transmission lines, and it takes between 20 and 30 minutes for a ground crew to inspect the structure for damage with the binoculars.

“By using a drone, that time is slashed to anywhere between 5 and 10 minutes,” Soosay said. “Not only are we able to take pictures of it, it tells us exactly which structure [is damaged] and what is wrong with it. It makes our job go much quicker.”

Soosay said the drones could save time and money by catching damages before they become more serious or cause an outage.

“We are able to capture the problem before something really bad happens,” Soosay said. “If one of the insulators is corroded or something, we can replace it quicker.”

The drones will also make line inspectors’ jobs safer by finding damage that would normally require someone to be lifted up to the tower for a closer inspection, according to Rick Gonzales, an Austin Energy employee on the drone team.

“With the drone, we can stay on the ground and get the video,” he said. “The number one benefit, of course, is safety, and the fact that we don’t have to put a lineman out on a line to do an inspection.”

Vance said the drones will not threaten jobs with Austin Energy but will make the ground crew’s work more efficient and effective. The drones will also make their job safer. Gonzales said humans will still need to make the repairs, and Austin Energy crews would probably be operating the drones.

“It’s just another tool, like 10–15 years ago we didn’t have laptops in our trucks, and now we do,” he said. “The laptops achieve all kinds of different stuff. Now we have a drone, it’s just another good tool.”

Arcturus is currently developing an image repository of new and damaged U.S. line components to improve their drones. Vance said they will be back in Austin in January to continue testing the drones.

Austin Energy has only tested the drones on transmission lines because they are outside of the city limits — within city limits, they need a piloting license to operate them. However, Soosay said Austin Energy will eventually start looking at the distribution lines inside of Austin.

“Austin Energy always likes to take the lead in any new technology,” Soosay said. “We’re willing to try it out because it’s beneficial for us. It would improve the reliability of the transmission lines and the quality of power we can deliver to our customers. We’ve got a world-class university sitting in our backyard, so we want to be part of [UT].”

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