Flight Path: Cherryland, Consumers use drones in hard-to-access areas

The use of drones by northern Michigan public utilities is taking off.

“We have two now and would like to add one or two more over the next year,” said Frank Siepker, engineering and operations manager at Cherryland Electric Cooperative. “They’re especially useful in the difficult-to-access areas.”

And the co-op, which serves its nearly 36,000 members with some 3,000 miles of utility lines across Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Manistee and Wexford counties, is not alone.

Consumers Energy currently has 20 drones that have logged approximately 150 flight hours across the company, said Roger Morgenstern, the company’s senior public information director. “(W)e see that figure continue to grow,” Morgenstern said.

Tony Sauerbrey, NMC’s UAS program manager, conducts drone pilot training with Cherryland employees at NMC’s facility at the Yuba airport.

Drone use varies, but in northern Michigan, drones are used primarily for “… electric line inspections, hydro dam mapping and some real estate scouting,” he said. Other typical utility uses of drones, technically called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) within the industry, are meter reading, wind turbine inspections, solar garden inspections, cell tower inspections and more.

The growth of drone use is anticipated for Consumers, said Morgenstern.

“Consumers Energy certainly anticipates an increase in usage due to the significant potential drone technology advancements,” he said. “In 2019, the company is on track to have flown three times the amount of flight hours that we flew in 2018. We expect 2020 will continue that growth in the number of flight hours on our system.”

As Consumers Energy grows its drone program, Morgenstern said it will see a mix of full-time Consumers Energy drone pilots, plus other employees who are trained to use drones as part of their daily jobs. It will also team up with contracted drone companies and pilots, with certain factors influencing how a job is done.

“The decision on how a specific drone task will be accomplished will be based on a few factors that include things like cost, technical difficulty and response requirements,” explained Morgenstern. “Drones have the ability to significantly impact the utility industry and Consumers Energy is fully engaged in exploring those opportunities where we can impact cost, reliability and safety with the use of drones.”

Cherryland Electric Co-op flies two different types of drones, one larger aircraft equipped with a thermal imaging and a zoom camera, and a smaller, more portable unit.

“We use them for preventative maintenance, to detect defective components and asset inventory, taking photos to add to our graphic information system,” said Siepker. “We’re in our second year and have nine licensed drone operators.”

A Cherryland Electric drone inspects lines near Silver Lake Road.

The co-op’s drone operators usually work in two-person teams, one to operate the drone and one on the camera. About half of the operators are linemen and the rest are other staff members, including mechanics, IT workers and operations personnel, according to Siepker.

“Quite a few of our people have purchased their own personal drones,” he said. “They practice their commercial flying, which is very different than recreational flying.”

Public utilities have much to gain by adopting drones. Across the country there are some 600,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 5.5 million miles of distribution lines that need periodic inspection.

Manned aircraft for line inspections typically cost between $1,000 and $2,000 per hour, while using drones can cost as little as $200 to $300 per hour to do the work while collecting even more data.

As for natural gas, there are an estimated 2.4 million miles of underground natural gas pipelines across the U.S. Leak detection on those lines is now being done by drones mounted with thermal imaging sensors.
When it comes to renewable energy, more than 6,000 utility-scale facilities nationwide require regular inspections. Drones are used to detect specific panels that are malfunctioning far quicker than a field crew on foot.

There are also some 52,000 utility-scale wind turbines operating and more than 800,000 turbine blades worldwide that need to be inspected regularly. Drones eliminate much of the climbing and risk associated with this task.

Water utility operations can span tens of thousands of acres of watershed lands, thousands of miles of pipelines, tunnels and sewer lines, reservoirs and tanks, along with treatment plants. UAVs are used to measure soil temperature differences near leaking pipelines, quickly spotting problems in remote areas.

And drones can be used to monitor environmental compliance on large projects, such as dams, thereby avoiding work stoppages that can cost a utility thousands of dollars daily.

Despite all the positive uses for drones, not all utilities are able to take advantage of their versatility. Traverse City Light & Power, for example, does not use drones, according to Operations Manager Daren Dixon.

“While extremely valuable for difficult-to-access areas, the vast majority of our service territory is close to the Cherry Capital Airport,” explained Dixon. “There are restrictions on drone use around airports that make it less feasible for us. If our territory was rural and had large ravines, or lines going cross-country, drone usage could potentially make a great deal of sense.”

Drones enable utility staff to see areas that are difficult to see from the ground. “For our area, this could be lines that are off road, or taller poles where it is quick to buzz up to the top, in lieu of an employee doing so in a bucket truck,” said Dixon.

On the negative side, in the TCL&P service area they would have to work with the Federal Aviation Administration, detailing their plans for flying daily. Also, some drones don’t have long-range capability, which defeats some of the purpose, according to Dixon.

If the TC-based utility did ever use drones, they have some amateur drone operators on staff that could be trained. “I think drone use has been proven to be of value in many utilities,” said Dixon. “However it has limitations with safe, permitted use around airports.”