Niles to buy $40,000 drone to inspect utilities and spot defects | Local | southbendtribune.com

This report from the South Bend Tribune illustrates how even small cities are quicklu adopting drone technology to improve service delivery:

The small city of Niles, Michigan has embraced drone technology, and recently announced the purchase of a $40,000 commercial-grade drone to inspect wires, poles, substations and all aspects of the city’s electric utility system.

Thermal and zoom imaging will help detect equipment defects that can be fixed before they become a problem.

Research showed that costs associated with just a couple of power outages could equal the cost of the drone itself, some city officials said. Plus, there could be other savings, as well as improved worker safety, they said.

Five city staff members earned Federal Aviation Administration remote pilot licenses have been using consumer-grade drones since early this year as part of the city’s drone feasibility study.

Utility manager Jeff Dunlap sees drones as the wave of the future. He said Niles is in a unique position to make use of them under FAA rules because of its class of airspace and having its own airport, issues that could hinder other municipalities.

The four consumer-grade drones have proved handy, and the city wants to take its program to the next level for the electric utility, which serves about 7,500 customers.

The technology will allow the electric utility to more easily perform its own inspection scans of seven substations and all parts of the system. Dunlap estimated the drone could result in about $26,000 in savings per year. Using the device also means more often keeping personnel on the ground and at a distance from “hot spots,” increasing worker safety, he said.

The thermal scanning feature could have been used this summer, Dunlap said, to head off the second of two back-to-back power outages. The blowout of an insulator possibly is what cracked another one nearby, which then failed and caused a second outage. A thermal image could have shown the crack.

“When we have an outage, we want to start thermal scanning either side of it,” Dunlap told the utilities board.

After a recent traffic accident, a drone was used to photograph a dozen utility poles in about 15 minutes, Dunlap said. Workers then were able to identify and fix a loose fastener and streetlight bracket.

Sending a worker up from a bucket truck once to repair a problem rather than sending a person up repeatedly to inspect 12 or more poles saves a lot of time and is safer, Dunlap said. Bucket truck inspection of the same dozen poles could have taken more than an hour, he said. Despite time savings anticipated with use of the drone, Dunlap said there are no plans to reduce personnel.

Staff have flown drones on about 60 assignments this year, including to take pictures for the city’s website and get images of the steep roof of the old Carnegie library, which needed fixing. One of the first missions, Dunlap said, was to photograph damage for National Weather Service investigators after a tornado blew through town on Feb. 28.

Drones often are used in the power industry to help manage trees near lines — identifying where they’re too close so crews know where to cut.

Source: Niles to buy $40,000 drone to inspect utilities and spot defects | Local | southbendtribune.com