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Lately, the use of so-called "drones" by the Obama administration has been the subject of much public debate, but could unmanned aircraft help utilities assess damage to the grid and, thus, reduce outage-response time? According to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), which just finished up new test flights of two drone prototypes, the answer is getting ever closer to "yes."

For a while now, EPRI has been working on developing and testing drones, or unmanned aerial systems (UAS), that utilities could use to detect damage to their distribution and transmission systems. These drones are equipped with high-resolution video and digital cameras, whose images are relayed back to the operator in real time. According to EPRI, this information could prove critical to utilities after a severe weather event and allow crews to restore power faster.

EPRI’s most recent UAS test flights, conducted last month in Alabama, showed promise. Flying at altitudes below 100 feet, the Adaptive Flight Hornet Maxi and Aeryon Scout prototypes successfully conducted visual inspections of grid components. The “rotary winged” UAS, which weigh less than 55 pounds, helped underscore the practicality and potential benefits of using such devices.

“The test flight results are an important step in determining whether UAS technology can be deployed to improve the accuracy and timeliness of utility storm damage assessment,” said Matthew Olearczyk, EPRI’s program manager for distribution systems research, in a statement.

“The images and videos from these flights clearly show the potential of these combined technologies,” he added. “Continuing research will better determine which combinations of aircraft and payload could offer the best results.”

However, Olearczyk cautioned that more work needs to be done before utilities start deploying UAS to inspect power lines or other grid components. One major obstacle, for example, is finding a way to properly integrate data gathered by drones with utilities’ operations.

“There is some really important work ahead in creating seamless interfaces with utility information  technology  systems, as well as the rapidly developing field force technologies, such as tablet computers, that some utility work crews are now carrying into the field,” he said.

For these test flights, EPRI has partnered with researchers at New Mexico State University, and the team expects to use the results to help spur more tests and develop further insights later this year.

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