In March, a troop of engineers gathered in an unkept green field in rural Nottinghamshire, England. They were there to test a drone piloting software that they hoped could one day be in charge of maintaining the high-voltage pylons that transmit electricity across the country. Assuming the software was working, a drone was about to inspect a pylon from a few meters away, maneuvered not by a nearby pilot but a computer in a control station hundreds of meters away.
Seconds later, the dance began. Whizzing around, the drone took 65 photos that documented the condition of the pylon’s steel arms, fittings, and conductors. After only six minutes, the drone returned to the ground to a round of applause. By the time it had landed, it had already sent the photos to be analyzed for corrosion by an AI-powered system.
“What we’re doing is sending a super high-level instruction to the drone, like ‘Go to that pylon,’ and the drone is using its own intelligence to understand where the pylon is, where the parts of the pylon are that need to be imaged, and then it organizes its own route to the data capture itself,” says Sees.ai founder John McKenna, whose company was behind the drone test.
Until now, data about the condition of electricity pylons has almost exclusively been captured manually by using ropes to climb pylons, which is dangerous, or by helicopters, which is expensive and polluting. (Helicopters also deliver poor data because they can only gather it from afar.) Manually-flown drones, on the other hand, can’t be rolled out on a large scale because they’re extremely slow and require a pilot and an observer to follow them.
As such, the companies responsible for these pylons have had to settle for scheduled maintenance, which is not only inefficient but unsafe. Faults in the UK power transmission network are expensive, shutting down entire regions, but in drier regions they can cause wildfires. Unlock unmanned drone flight and you can, in theory, eradicate this problem.
Other countries have been working on similar efforts: Last year, the Florida Power and Light company used automated drones manufactured by Israeli company Percepto to detect problems in the power grid after hurricanes. In Norway, utility company Agder Energi Nett announced in April 2021 that it will rely exclusively on automated drones, mostly flown by KVS Technologies, to monitor its power grid. The system the company uses is tailored to speed and scalability in that it flies a minimum of 15 meters over the top of the grid for a “broad inspection,” says the company’s COO, Jimmy Bostrøm, rather than inspecting each pylon individually. A key part of the inspection is identifying vegetation that may have fallen on the grid during strong winds and storms. Three of Sweden’s core electricity distributors have also recently signed contracts with Airpelago, another company that flies automated drones, and have committed to exclusive use of automated drones for inspection over the next two years. “There are real signs that operators are steadily moving away from helicopters,” Max Hjalmarsson, the company’s cofounder and CEO, says.