L O N G - Distance Drones Aid Vegetation Control

To keep the lights on across the U.S., overgrown vegetation must be kept in check. According to CN Utility Consulting benchmarking studies, utilities in the U.S. collectively spend $6 billion to $8 billion annually to conduct vegetation inspections and maintenance via helicopters and ground crews.

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By Tero Heinonen

To keep the lights on across the U.S., overgrown vegetation must be kept in check. According to CN Utility Consulting benchmarking studies, utilities in the U.S. collectively spend $6 billion to $8 billion annually to conduct vegetation inspections and maintenance via helicopters and ground crews. This includes preventing power outages caused by fallen or interfering trees. Even with these solutions and heavy investments, it is difficult for utilities to monitor hard-to-reach places.

Utilities, therefore, are looking for a safer, more efficient and less expensive option.

Long-distance Drones Provide Bigger Bang for Your Buck

New beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), or long-distance, drones can survey larger swathes of territory - hundreds of thousands of miles of power lines and poles - and pinpoint exact locations of specific trees and transformers. These drones carry 3-D imaging technology known as LiDAR to map millions of individual trees and their details such as height, weight, species and proximity to power lines. In addition, thermal imaging spots bad connections and problems with utility lines, while ultraviolet inspections can detect electrical discharge from corroded or loose connections.

These technologies, along with positioning and measurement tools, allow drones to collect, analyze and deliver massive treasure troves of data to utilities within days instead of months.

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A LiDAR image sent from a drone shows trees and power lines.

These enormous data sets are kept in secure cloud storage that can be referenced by companies based on varying circumstances. From there, software and a self-learning algorithm comb through the data to automatically identify and prioritize risks to the grid. Not only can utilities use this data to determine immediate issues and needs, they also can store the information indefinitely so that the analytics can forecast potential trouble spots, helping these utilities avert power outages and other future issues.

For example, the data can forecast the rate at which a specific tree will grow and if and when it will become a threat to a power line. As utilities conduct multiple rounds of inspections over time, the data builds upon the self-learning algorithm, making these predictions more accurate.

U.S. Can Learn From Europe’s Successful Drone Inspections

Companies already are implementing commercial drone flights around the globe and they are making a case for drone adoption in the U.S.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is working to create uniform drone regulations across the European Union. In the meantime, each European nation is relying on its own existing rules. For example, Finland’s Transport Safety Agency, Trafi, prides itself in its progressive and pro-business regulations.

“Our brand new regulation on the use of unmanned aircraft is the most liberal in Europe, if not in the whole world,” Kari Wihlman, director general at Trafi, said last October. “We want to pave the way for full-scale benefits to be gained from this new segment of aviation, and create opportunities for experimentation.”

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Aerial images created by drones can be viewed on computer.

In addition to line-of-sight flight regulations, Finland allows long-distance flights in specially permitted areas.

The permissions for long-distance flights are based on proportional operations-centric and risk-based assessment, which carefully considers the risks and mitigations for the specific type of operation. The operators need to register with Trafi and submit a comprehensive safety assessment and operations instructions.

Drone service company Sharper Shape was the first company to deploy long-distance drones for power line inspections on a commercial scale in Europe. Over the course of three years, working during the summer months when trees were at their fullest, the team launched an army of drones to map one of Sharper Shape’s European customer’s 10 million trees and thousands of miles of power lines. Through these inspections, the customer captured more than 20 terabytes of data and millions of images of trees and assets. The company was then able to remove the high-risk trees to prevent any future threats to the grid. A manned helicopter was used for part of the work to compare the drones with the traditional methods.

Prior to deploying long-distance drones, the customer used ground crews to conduct utility asset inspections. With drone technology, the customer received comprehensive knowledge of its situation for the first time and reduced aerial inspection costs by an estimated 50 percent.

Bringing Effective Drone Inspections to the U.S.

Recently, Sharper Shape moved to the U.S. and began to demonstrate and develop operations for commercial long-distance drone flights for U.S. electric companies. It, and others in the aviation industry, are studying the business and regulatory dimensions of long-distance flights. Those involved are optimistic that permission for the type of flights needed for vegetation management will become possible in the coming months.

The U.S. aviation community recognizes that long-distance flights are crucial in order to offer efficient services and more extensive and precise data. The limitations posed by flights staying in the line of sight prevent important drone applications, including surveys of large areas, inspections over thousands of miles of pipeline and many security applications. In addition, long-distance inspections are at minimum four times more cost-effective than survey flights that stay in the operator’s line of sight.

An industry advisory committee recently made recommendations to the FAA that would create four categories of small commercial drones, and drones weighing about a half-pound or less would be allowed to fly overhead without restriction. Drones larger than a half-pound would have to maintain a distance of at least 20 feet overhead and 10 feet laterally. In addition, the Senate passed the FAA Reauthorization Bill, headed to the House for approvals. This bill authorizes increased commercial use of long-distance drones.

Drones can serve as a cost-effective, accurate and efficient solution for the utility industry in the U.S. and can drastically reduce the number of power outages across the country, adding tremendous value to consumers and the utility industry alike.


CEO of Sharper Shape Inc., Tero Heinonen is an entrepreneurial and experienced startup executive with a track record in international sales, tech and business management. U.S.-based Sharper Shape is a global automated drone-based asset inspection company and is the first company to deploy commercial drones for utility asset inspection in Europe. Heinonen has co-founded five technology companies, where he has served as CEO or chairman or both.

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