Drone technology takes flight: working on dam safety inspections22 June 2023
Drone technology is playing an increasingly larger role within dam safety inspections
Just a few years ago, it would have sounded more like a scene from a science fiction film but now pilotless drones look set to play a greater role in maintaining the safety of critical infrastructure, such as dams and hydropower projects.
In the US, the New York Power Authority (NYPA) has received its first federal approval to conduct fully remote drone operations, such as asset and vegetative management inspections, at its Blenheim-Gilboa Pumped Storage Power Project in Schoharie County. NYPA’s growing drone programme supports its asset management strategies and is part of an authority-wide digitisation initiative to modernise grid infrastructure.
“The power authority is proud to be leading the way in the advanced deployment of automated flight technologies for use in the utility industry,” said Justin E. Driscoll, New York Power Authority Acting President and CEO. “Drones will become an even more valuable tool as we expand our capability to detect infrastructure issues and support our mapping and land management responsibilities. Being able to capture images remotely, regardless of weather conditions or distances, will allow us to track and evaluate our assets more efficiently and safely.”
NYPA has been granted a waiver by the Federal Aviation Administration that allows operators to conduct operations without the requirement for the pilot or an observer to see the unmanned aircraft, or to scan the surrounding airspace throughout the entire flight. Routes, however, must be pre-planned and the drone must remain within 50 feet above ground level or within 50 feet of structures.
The waiver was obtained with the help of US drone and software manufacturer Skydio, and is specific to their drones. The Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance provided a safe testing environment and safety case development, conducting test flights and training for NYPA at the New York test site.
"This important approval enables NYPA to operate Skydio drones beyond line of sight without visual observers,” Skydio’s Senior Director of Regulatory Affairs, Jenn Player, said. “Skydio autonomy and collision avoidance capabilities are key to conducting these low-altitude, high-value operations safely and easily."
The X2 system from Skydio
Blenheim-Gilboa Pumped Storage Project was selected as the location to prove the technology’s application, primarily because of the sparser population in the region. Drones are already being operated at various NYPA sites throughout the state to monitor asset health, including for inspection of transmission lines, vegetation management and monitoring of overgrown trees, and spillway erosion mapping. Being able to view assets remotely will improve safety for workers and save time. For example, a drone can significantly reduce the time needed to inspect a transmission line, particularly after inclement weather.
The timing of the waiver dovetails with the launch of Skydio’s new drone docking technology that allows drones to take off and land autonomously from the dock, with a pilot directing operations from a remote location.
“Our application demonstrated to the FAA that we are ready to enhance our programme and capabilities,” Peter Kalaitzidis, NYPA’s programme manager for unmanned aircraft systems, said. “Having this waiver removes limitations and unlocks opportunities moving forward. We will continue to explore potential uses for this technology that will benefit the authority and hopefully the industry at large. At present, we are developing the procedures, mitigation steps and hardware so we can best use these resources over the next few years.”
NYPA’s extensive in-house drone programme is researching and testing new applications to implement drones more fully into day-to-day utility operations while maintaining the highest standards of aviation professionalism and safety. More than 40 employees are now trained as drone pilots, and work on projects ranging from vegetation management to line inspection to project monitoring.
“Drones enable the core industries that our civilisation runs on—transportation, public safety, energy, construction, communications, defence, and more—to operate more safely and more efficiently, by putting sensors wherever they’re needed, whenever they’re needed, while keeping people safely on the ground. The transition to autonomy delivers a step change in the accessibility and utility of drones by removing the need for an expert pilot,” said Adam Bry, co-founder and CEO of Skydio. “We are still in the early innings of the industry, but we are seeing extraordinary demand globally from organisations addressing needs important to every citizen.”
In a first of its kind approval by Transport Canada, a drone-in-a-box solution from autonomous inspection and monitoring solution provider Percepto is to monitor Ontario Power Generation’s McConnell Lake Control Dam without a visual observer on site.
A Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) was issued for the Percepto Air Max autonomous drone-in-a-box, as provided by Rocky Mountain Unmanned Systems and their GM Kevin Toderal, to perform remote inspections in a pilot project starting in February 2023.
Percepto's automated drone-in-a-box technology has been deployed by other electric utilities to monitor the durability of power grid infrastructure and quickly detect problems, enabling faster response times and restoring power quicker after storms and other disasters.
"Obtaining this certificate marks a significant milestone in Canada to provide remote and autonomous inspections at power generating facilities, fulfilling Percepto's mission to provide safe and reliable critical infrastructure," said Percepto Policy and Government Affairs VP Neta Gliksman. "We look forward to growing our strong working relationship with Transport Canada and supporting their efforts to create a thriving environment for drone operations by making autonomous drone technology available to power stations and other critical infrastructure across the country."
Percepto operations will be coordinated on a single platform through the company's Autonomous Inspection and Monitoring (AIM) solution. With Percepto AIM, drones can be operated remotely to ensure they work together in sync, providing maximum site coverage with increased safety, efficiency and ease of operation.
"We look forward to gaining new operation and infrastructure insights at McConnell Lake Control Dam," said Ontario Power Generation Senior Information System Specialist Tim Trebilcock. "Our hope is that this technology will help our efforts to ensure asset integrity and reliable electricity generation for Ontarians."