Power line inspections with drones: the balance between automation and manual operations
Close-up inspection of power line assets via drones requires a lot of finesse from commercial pilots to collect the data utilities need. While drone inspections are much faster than prior methods, data collection along power lines is not always as simple as flying to a location and taking a quick photo. Pilots generally have to position their drones at awkward angles in order to get up close to the asset, or zoom in many times to get the fine detail of, say, a cotter pin or an insulator’s serial number. It gets more complicated with external factors such as lighting, the angle of the sun, and wind. Acquiring high quality data is not straightforward in any situation, especially when it comes to drones doing it entirely themselves.
Automating inspections with drones is a common goal in the industry – it’s supposed to increase efficiency by at least 50%, according to experts we’ve spoken with. However, it’s not worth sitting back and letting the drone do all the work if the resultant data is of poor quality or if the inspection process becomes riskier. This is why many pilots prefer to have full control of their drone during inspections, and according to our research, some believe that drone technology is not capable enough to fully automate the process.
Thankfully, automated and manual modes are not exclusive of each other, and there are a few different steps within the workflow where automation can assist. It plays an important role , for example, in post-inspection processing: computer vision algorithms can scan thousands of photos for quality checks while simultaneously doing asset management. Inspection teams we’ve spoken with say that this is a big step for improving the speed and quality of their projects but doesn’t always help them find actual damage in the assets.
This is why the flight and data acquisition step of the workflow is so important. An inspector’s expertise and a pilot’s skill should be available during flight to guarantee all the needed data is collected while the drone is moving as efficiently and safely as possible. Semi-automation – where the drone’s autonomy interacts with the user – must be improved to make the drone act more efficiently to support their work.
Taking semi-automation to the next level starts with increasing drone awareness of power lines. For our team at Manifold Robotics and clients we work with, electromagnetic fields (EMF) can play a key role in increasing that ability. The detection of a power line’s EMF enables drones to know their relative location to the power line, unlocking features like safer and faster automated drone positioning and gimbal tracking of the power line. Such features like these allow the operator to remain more focused on data collection while flying drones with greater time efficiency and lower risk.
Manifold Robotics internal drone flying along transmission line
Full automation – a product of drones operating at the highest level of autonomy – is theoretically the most efficient way to execute tasks like power line inspections. But since the technology, workflow, and in some cases the regulations are not there yet, we must make gradual steps towards achieving it. At the same time, data quality and safety cannot be compromised, which is why semi-automated workflows must be embraced as an evolutionary step in the solution set.