Drones Soar As Energy's Inspector Gadget At Pipelines, Windmills

That buzzing around town may not be a teen’s high-tech toy. Soon, it might be a commercial drone checking power lines.

Thousands of massive wind turbines are popping up all over the world. Often taller than the Statue of Liberty, their stature makes the blades difficult to inspect. The answer? Send in the drones.

This month, unmanned aerial vehicles will fly over orchards and farmland in Mason County, Michigan to inspect three towering turbines in the Lake Winds Energy Park, owned by Consumers Energy, a public utility. Equipped with cameras and sensors, they’ll do what’s often done by workers in helicopters or on ropes.

Drones, long used by the U.S. military to drop missiles on targets, are increasingly eyed for other uses. Hollywood is using them to film movies, and Amazon wants them to deliver packages. Now, they’re poised for takeoff in the energy industry. Oil and gas companies as well as utilities are testing them to inspect pipelines, power lines, wind turbines, and solar farms.

“The opportunities are in the billions -- with a B,” says Maryanna Saenko, author of a 2015 Lux Research report on the technology. In the wind industry alone, a new Navigant Research forecast says, drone sales and services could hit $1.6 billion annually and $6 billion cumulatively by 2024.

“Drones provide access to hard-to-get-to locations,” such as remote roads or mountain canyons, says William Semke, director of the University of North Dakota’s unmanned aircraft systems engineering lab. At the same time, he says they—like birds—pose a small risk to low-flying aircraft.

So drones, just starting out in the energy industry, face obstacles. To avoid collisions, countries limit their use. The drone industry will have to prove its vehicles can do business accurately and safely.

U.S. Skies Open Up to Drones

They’re getting their chance. In 2014, after years of forbidding commercial drones, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration began granting waivers—typically allowing use within 200 feet of the ground. It’s since approved more than 1,400 waivers for two dozen industries including energy. In February, it proposed a rule on drone use but did not set a deadline for finalizing it.

The oil industry jumped in quickly. Last year, energy giant BP obtained FAA’s first waiver for commercial drone use over land and began tests at its Prudhoe Bay oilfield in Alaska. It’s using a 13-pound, fixed-winged vehicle equipped with LiDAR (light detection and ranging) equipment and remote sensors to collect 3-D images.

“This is a breakthrough for BP,” Curt Smith, its chief technology officer says in a video, describing how drones improve field operations at less cost and risk. Floods and ice floes make make other monitoring methods difficult, BP says on its website. The drones, made by California-based AeroVironment, enable workers to drive gravel roads in poor visibility and scan pipelines to identify frost-damaged areas that need repair.

Shell*, too, is trying out unmanned aircraft. At the Ormen Lange gas plant in Norway, it’s used them to inspect flare stacks, which burn off flammable gas. This used to be a “hazardous and lengthy job,” it says, requiring engineers to rappel down the 70-meter tall tower and close the plant for nearly two weeks. Now, they do it in a few hours and keep the plant open.

The Netherlands-based company sees other benefits. It says inspecting facilities while they’re still running enables infrared cameras to obtain live heat images from equipment. “Easier access to otherwise tricky-to-see areas,” it says, “also means we can do inspections more often.”

In December, Oregon-based VDOS Global LLC received an FAA waiver to use drones to inspect flare stacks at 14 of Shell’s offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Citing 3,500-plus potential sites in the Gulf alone, VDOS says it expects “significant” industry demand to use drones to detect faults, corrosion, and other signs of deterioration.

Helping to Keep the Power On?

U.S.-based utilities, buoyed by FAA waivers this year, also have begun testing. They include Dominion Virginia Power and Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy.

Duke Energy is trying out an AeroVironment vehicle at a power plant with a solar array in Catawba County, N.C. It wants to see if the drone can detect heat coming off an array, which would indicate the panel is not working.

“The technology is still pretty new,” says Randy Wheeless, Duke spokesman. “We’re many months, or even years, away from an official drone program,” he says, adding Duke wants to ensure drones live up to their hype and are worth the investment. Also, he says the FAA waiver is limiting, because some transmission towers are too tall for drone inspections.

In Lithonia, Georgia, Southern Company is testing drones to see how well they inspect power lines at its Klondike Training Facility. Its officials say the company plans to use drones for routine operations by the of 2015.

Also by year’s end, Consumers Energy plans to wrap up its drone testing and analysis. It began inspections of power lines this summer at seven sites in Michigan, aiming for a quick way to pinpoint storm damage and restore power. It sees drones as a quieter, eco-friendlier way to inspect high-voltage lines, currently done twice a year by helicopters. It’s expanding tests to six wind turbines, three at each of its two wind parks.

A drone "can get right up next to the blade,” taking 3-D pictures that show if there are dents or holes, says Andrew Bordine, the utility's director of customer management and grid infrastructure. “It could be a big cost-saver,” he says, noting current inspections—in which workers hang off the blades by ropes—are dangerous and cost $10,000 each.

“There’s a lot of interest” in drone monitoring of turbines, says Jesse Broehl, senior research analyst at Navigant Research, noting the quality of the 3-D imaging. He says about 268,550 wind turbines were installed globally by the beginning of this year, and each of their 805,000 blades need to be inspected at least once a year.

He says drones currently inspect fewer than 2 percent of wind turbines, but he expects demand for them will soar as more turbines near the end of their warranty periods, typically three to five years.  

Obstacles Cloud Potential Boom

Yet safety concerns linger. The National Agricultural Aviation Association says drones present a hazard to pilots of crop dusters and other low-flying craft  similar to that presented by birds. It wants drones to be better equipped to avoid collision—a view shared by the Air Line Pilots Association International, a labor union.

Indeed, incidents with “unmanned aircraft systems” have occurred in the U.S. The Department of Transportation is getting reports of more than 60 incidents a month, sometimes involving pilots who had to change course to avoid collisions.

Unmanned aircraft "present new safety challenges for FAA,” Matthew Hampton, assistant inspector generator of the U.S. Department of Transportation, wrote in an August 2015 memo.

Such incidents have prompted some countries, including India and Japan, to crack down on drone use, says Steve Gitlin, vice president of marketing for AeroVironment. He says the public rarely differentiates between sophisticated, commercial drones and the cheap popular ones, which he calls “flying selfie sticks.”

“The biggest challenge is not having a regulatory framework in place,” says Tom McMahon of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group. He says the lack of a final U.S. policy is limiting drone demand.

Saenko, the Lux Research analyst, says some countries like Canada, Switzerland, and New Zealand have more open policies toward drones, and efforts are underway to create a European Union-wide regulation by 2020.

The U.S. might not finalize its own rule for several years, but Saenko says it’s now on a “clearer track,” citing the plethora of FAA waivers this year and a White House executive order in February in support of responsible drone use.

The result? She says only about 5 percent of oil and gas operations now use drones, but in five years, she expects to see them on just about every oil rig.

*Shell is sponsor of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative, which explores energy issues. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

On Twitter: Follow Wendy Koch and get more environment and energy coverage at NatGeoEnergy.

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