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How ComEd plans to use drones in an effort to keep your lights on

By: Kate MacArthur |

Don’t be surprised if you see drones hovering over power lines this summer. Commonwealth Edison, the largest electricity utility in Illinois, won Federal Aviation Administration approval in March to use unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, to inspect its lines. Terry Donnelly, ComEd’s executive VP and chief operating officer, explains how the Exelon subsidiary teamed with Illinois Institute of Technology on the program.

Q. How do you plan to use drones?

A. Our goal is to use these systems to inspect our lines and detect problems to prevent power outages and look at damage following storms so we can get repair crews in to restore power more quickly. We’re trying to prove out if we could save in orders of magnitude the time that we currently deploy. Would that translate into an operational savings in efficiency but also prevent outages to customers?

It’s a two-year approval, and we project to start flying in the summer in the south suburbs, once we get the actual aircraft system and camera equipment.

Q. Can you give a specific example?

A. We have a number of facilities that are in areas along railroads and are hard to access and inspect. In prior methods, we would have to drive the line in adverse terrain, walk the line because of accessibility, and in the case of overhead transmission lines — the big steel towers you see on right-of-ways — use helicopters to fly over these lines.

Many lines are in rural areas and sometimes go 30 to 40 miles. We see this as a real advantage in damage assessment after a storm. You’re trying to get into a rear property or one not accessible to road traffic to find out how many poles are down, what’s the wire (type) and wire size, and what kind of equipment is needed.

Q. What will you test?

A. How to increase the efficiency of the system to fly a longer amount of time before it has to come down to the ground to get recharged. We’re thinking eight to 18 minutes per flight. We’ll test the ability to bring back quality visual intelligence and infrared camera equipment to see if we can detect hot spots, which indicate future failure points when the power’s on. We’re also testing how we’ll be communicating with municipalities so there are no surprises while we’re out testing.

Q. How are you working with IIT?

A. IIT and their student teams have developed a lot of this drone technology and have fabricated a cage around the aircraft system in order to protect it and add to its efficiency. Initially, they will operate the unmanned aircraft systems because they have trained pilots. We envision training additional pilots in our own company.

We also partnered with NEETRAC, which is a power research arm that’s heavily associated with Georgia Institute of Technology, on a robot to assess any hazards that may exist in an underground vault prior to an employee entering that manhole to perform work. The robot initiative is in the earlier conceptual development phase.

Q. What led to this?

A. The major storms of 2011 were the largest in the company’s history and affected over 900,000 customers. One of our managers was thinking of ways to improve our storm response with technology. He came across this drone technology and brought in somebody demonstrate it.

At the time, we could see a lot of limitations in the technology. We encouraged folks in the company to look beyond the initial capability to the long term. He worked with the senior committee for permission to further pursue the drone technology and start the FAA approval process.

Q. How does this fit into ComEd’s innovation strategy?

A. We have a dedicated group that we give the time to look for new technologies and to develop ideas away from day-to-day operational challenges. Our operational, strategy and business intelligence group is dedicated to these long-range ideas. We have maybe 15 folks in the group working throughout the company.

We also interface with our core engineering group called iHUB, which is our innovation hub. It is a process that manages the company around ideas in their development, pilot and implementation phases. The UAS is just one example of what will come out of these processes and groups.