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The drones are coming to utilities

Posted by Espen Davidsen Nov 18, 2015 9:00:00 AM

Octocopter example as a multirotor drone for utilitiesPhoto: Coptercraft

For many years, field engineers and service personnel have operated with high risk to build, monitor and maintain the power grids all over the world. Many powerlines are crossing unfriendly and dangerous terrain other powerlines cover long distances in remote areas with little other infrastructure.

The cost of maintenance and monitoring the transmission and the distribution nets are significant for Transmission System Operators (TSO) and Distribution System Operators (DSO). With access to up to date and accurate information about status of the system can help building better and more accurate routines for condition based and predictive maintenance of the equipment in the field.

Field inspections are often expensive, time-consuming and sometimes risky. This is where drones can add significant value and cut costs. The drones will in many scenarios eliminate the need for sending personnel into the field and hence reduce the risk of human life.

This blog article will explain some important definitions and can be useful to understand more about drones for utilities. The drones are coming to utilities, are you ready?

Main drone types

Rotorcrafts RotorCraft.jpgPhoto: Robot Aviation

Drones with one or more rotors, well known configurations are two rotor helicopters, quadcopters and octocopters.

The most obvious advantage of rotorcraft UAVs is the ability to do vertical take-off and landing (VTOL). Another huge advantage is the maneuverability, stability and hoovering capabilities. The major disadvantages are limited cruising speed and limited range.

Fixed wing

Fixed_Wing_2.jpgPhoto: Robot Aviation

Drone with fixed wings, a common category of aircrafts using wings that generate lift. Fixed wing aircrafts come in many different wing configurations in terms of number of wings, wing types and wingspans. Fixed wings drones are typically powered by propellers and not jet engines because of cost, weight and size.

The advantages and disadvantages are more or less the opposite of rotorcrafts. The fixed wing drones need systems and facilities for landing and take-off. For drones, catapults or slingshots can be used for takeoff. For landing some drones use parachutes. The flight range and cruising speed can be superior to rotorcrafts.

Hybrids and convertiplane drones

Tiltrotor.jpgPhoto: US Coastguard

Some drones are designed to get the most from both rotorcraft and fixed wing by combining wings and rotors. The idea is to get the range and speed from fixed wings and the VTLO and hoovering capabilities of rotorcrafts. The convertiplanes use the rotors in vertical position during landing, hoovering and take-off. When in the air the rotors are gradually tilted forward into horizontal position to provide speed, at this point the wings are providing lift.

The disadvantage of this design is believed to be the complexity, maneuverability and cost.

Drone systems and abbreviations

Source: caa.no


A drone is one of the most common terms used for unmanned aircrafts. The experts tend to prefer one or more of the terms listed below.

UAV – Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

This is also a common term, mostly used in military context. This describes an aircraft with no pilot, although most UAVs are in fact controlled by a remote pilot.

UAS – Unmanned Aircraft System

This describes the full system of land based control system, launch system, landing support, communication system and the actual aircraft.

RPA – Remotely piloted Aircraft

A more precise term, for most unmanned aircrafts and emphasize that it is in fact controlled by a pilot.

RPS – Remote Pilot Station

This is the control room for pilots who controls one or more RPAs. The RPS is in effect a remote cockpit.

RPAS – Remotely Piloted Aircraft System

RPAS is a subset of UAS and emphasize that the RPA is being controlled by a pilot at all times.

AUAS – Automatic Unmanned Aircraft Systems

This is the same as RPAS, but allows the aircraft to be automated and can be programmed to fly certain routes and perform predefined tasks during the flight.

Way forward

It is a multitude of different drones available in the market, from small consumer drones to highly advanced RPAS. One of the challenges of using drones for line inspection and investigations is to equip the drone with the right sensors and to make use of the data from the different sensors in a consistent way. The sensors comes with different data models, file formats and different interfaces. By combining forces with TSOs, DSOs and technology partners we can find different sensor configurations, data management and analysis that gives added value to the utilities.

For more smart meter related articles, please some of our other articles:

Free ebook: Planning radio networks for Smartgrid

Topics: CARMEN

Espen Davidsen's photo

By: Espen Davidsen

Espen Davidsen is a computer systems professional with more than 15 years of experience with communication systems and distributed information systems. He is currently director of Telecom and Utilities at Teleplan Globe.

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