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Drones for city utilities? They're doing it in Italy already

Submitted by doug.peeples on December 14, 2015

Want to know the number one cause of utility outages? No, it's not cyber-attacks or terrorist incursions or solar flares or any of the things that get the headlines. It's simple, old-fashioned maintenance. Or I should say, the lack thereof. Things such as vegetation impinging onto power lines or solar panels that have become covered with dust.

Council Lead Partner Enel is piloting the use of drones to help with maintenance inspections. Drones can quickly and easily fly over power lines, solar panels, wind farms and other equipment at a fraction of the cost of using humans equipped with ladders and bucket trucks.

Some of you may hit resistance from the unions, who don't want drones to take away jobs. So if you decide to pilot this concept, be sure to also investigate ways to retrain employees. And be sure the pilot project also tests ways to share costs with other city departments (such as water and public works) that have similar inspection needs. -- Jesse Berst

Drones -- unmanned aircraft systems -- may not have been around all that long but it seems everyone from Amazon to law enforcement and the military are using them. Earlier this year, Council Lead Partner Enel began using them to monitor power lines and equipment in Spain and Russia.

An Enel drone inspects a power lineNow its Enel Green Power subsidiary is experimenting with using drones equipped with high-resolution cameras and infrared thermographic gear to inspect its solar arrays and wind farms and their energy storage facilities, as well as marine energy installations. EGP also uses them to for aerial inspections of dams and hydropower plants.

Interesting, but what's the point?
EGP is betting drones will be a valuable contribution to its monitoring and maintenance operations and likely to increase efficiency, cut costs and generally make the business of keeping tabs on its renewable energy generating facilities much simpler.

And safer. If the pilot project is successful, the drones will in many cases be able to replace monitoring and maintenance work that always has been done on the ground. Often that work meant sending employees into high-altitude areas risky enough to jeopardize their safety.

Speed is another factor in EGP's equation. Drones have been able to inspect the 10,000 solar panels installed over four hectares at its Deruta solar arrays in Perugia, Italy -- in a little less than an hour. The panels are mounted on greenhouse roofs at one of the arrays, roughly 15 feet off the ground. It's easy to see why a drone flyover, even at slow speeds, would be much faster than employees clambering up and down ladders to perform the inspections -- not to mention safer.

EGP also is using drones for aerial inspections at its Barrea Lake hydropower plant in Abruzzo, Italy, where they monitor the condition of the surrounding lake slopes -- again with increased efficiency, reduced costs and more employee safety, EGP said.

More stories:
Enel says out with coal, in with renewables (and lots of them)
Why some utilities are giving away free electricity. (Could it work for your city?)
Why Enel is helping train "solar grandmas" in Latin America

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.