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Western Pa. utilities use drones and other robots to make inspections safer, more efficient

A drone flies near a power line.
Duquesne Light
When investigating power line outages in the field, a drone can fly right next to a damaged conductor and see the damage up close.

Buzzing around power lines in Beaver County — it’s not a bird. It’s not a plane. It’s a drone. Duquesne Light recently sent out the remote-controlled device to inspect poles and other equipment near Aliquippa as part of a pilot project to make inspections more reliable and safer for the crew.

Duquesne Light’s new Skydio drone, armed with high resolution cameras and thermal sensors, can zoom into hard-to-reach locations, see damage from all angles and sense an overheated piece of equipment — all of which would be difficult for a human inspector. This technology could be key to eliminating power outages and keeping workers safe in the field, according to Don Kunc, senior manager of distribution operations at Duquesne Light.

“How do we use this technology to eliminate some of the hazards that our employees would have to go through especially when doing inspections like walking on a right-of-way?” Kunc said. “You know, through the woods, up and down the up and down hills and things like that, where we can do that all from the safety of the edge of the right-of-way.”

Creating drones and other robots for infrastructure is nothing new for Pittsburgh robotic companies. For the past 15 years, the city’s technology sector has been a leading developer of what’s known as field robotics technology. These autonomous machines are designed to crawl, fly and swim in places that are often dirty, dangerous or difficult to send humans. For example, companies like Eye-Bot, based in New Kensington, make autonomous drones that create 3D maps and can get into confined spaces at oil and gas sites or under bridges. As the technology matures and costs fall, Pittsburgh’s potential takes flight.

“Everybody loves innovative technology, and Pittsburgh has it in droves,” said Jennifer Apicella, executive director of Pittsburgh Robotics Network. “However, markets are what dictate business. We are seeing an uptick as more and more people understand that these technologies are not that expensive. They’re not that complicated, and they can get a very high integrity data set back.”

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Bird’s eye view

Drones are an ideal technology for utility inspections, according to Burcu Akinci, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. With poles and wires distributed over miles, human inspection takes time. With drones, “you get this bird’s eye view with data and imagery. And data that is very difficult to get in any other way.”

Duquesne Light’s drone snaps 3D pictures of the power lines and poles. It tracks temperature changes that indicate overheating — an early portent of a power outage. In a safe spot in the field or behind a desk, humans can inspect the photos for any damage or abnormalities.

Kunc sees drones as a tool to increase reliability. For a crew to work on inspections of the electrical substations — where power is transformed into residential voltages and sent out onto the lines — they have to de-energize parts of the system so that workers can work at a safe distance. The drone can fly around to a fully energized substation. “The more things we have energized, the more reliable the system is,” Kunc said.

When investigating power line outages in the field, a drone can fly right next to a damaged conductor and see the damage up close. For a human inspector, it could be difficult to see from the ground. And they’re fast. “They will dramatically cut down on the time it takes to do an inspection,” Kunc said. “When you think about how long it can take to walk a 600-yard right-of-way through the woods, we can fly that in just minutes.”

Beyond power lines, drones are excellent bridge inspectors, according to Akinci. For a bridge inspection by humans, inspectors must close off the bridge to traffic. But drones can fly under, over and around the beams while cars and trucks speed by. They collect images for condition assessments “within an hour you have lots of images that you can do a quick assessment on the bridge to know where to focus a more detailed inspection,” Akinci said.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon have been working on drones that fly by themselves in indoor environments such as a tunnel construction site in Japan. Other autonomous drones fly through wildfires. Multiple sensors help firefighters navigate through smoke and create 3D maps of houses and other structures for a clearer view.

Fast, cheap, easy

Drones aren’t the only robot inspectors in town. “Whether it be a drone or crawling robot or an underwater autonomous machine, these machines are purpose-built for the environments in which they're deployed,” Apicella said.

Inspection robotics have been widely used in the oil and gas industry, on nuclear power plants, in military installations, manufacturing facilities or as security monitors. Pittsburgh-based Gecko Robotics has magnetic wall-crawling robots that climb autonomously up and down the surface of large industrial sites, collecting tens of thousands of data points to create a precise map. They can detect cracks and corrosion “right where a particular piece of infrastructure could be failing” in places like power plants or oil refineries, Apicella said.

For the most part, companies don’t buy the robots themselves but hire the robotic inspections as a service. This makes them cost effective, Apicella said. “Largely the teams come in, deploy them and provide the data package back. As it [becomes] more well known and understood and made accessible, these things can be looked at as fairly fast, cheap and easy to deploy and utilize.”

Duquesne Light’s drone program is still in its infancy. “We’re still figuring out the best path forward with drones,” Kunc said. “Honestly, it's a scary world whenever you think about some of the things you can do today, from what you could do a couple of years ago. So we're taking our time and making sure we're doing everything right.”