Westar Energy is increasing the use of drones for such things as inspecting equipment, navigating remote areas and managing some emergencies, as the utility tries to improve safety and efficiency while also saving money, company officials said.
Westar and Kansas State University’s Polytechnic Campus offer an unmanned aircraft systems program and have one of the nation’s largest enclosed drone flight facilities on the polytechnic campus in Salina. Now, it has begun deploying unmanned aircraft commercially, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported.
“It’s absolutely a cost savings at this point,” said Jason Klenklen, supervisor of transmission maintenance. “Instead of using manned aircraft, we’re using unmanned aircraft.”
The drones also can reduce risk for employees and contractors, Klenklen said. For example, fewer employees would need to travel during an ice storm to determine the cause of an outage.
Using drones to inspect boilers also would be safer, said Sam Sharp, a Kansas State Polytechnic USA Laboratory researcher and Westar’s primary liaison. The work takes extensive training to fly the aircraft because boilers have no internal lights or GPS signal.
“It allows employees to view the internal components of the boiler through real-time imagery captured by a drone while securely staying on the outside,” he said.
The drones are primarily being used in rural areas to gather information about transmission lines, specifically lines that are 69,000 volts and above, Klenklen said. The drones face some airspace restrictions, such as in Wichita and Topeka, and unmanned aircraft are required to be in the operators’ line of sight, although waivers are available in some instances.
“Within line of sight, that’s still a pretty big restriction on us,” Klenklen said. “That being said, there are times we’re able to see several miles down the line with one of these.”
Drones also can find potential issues that lead to outages more quickly than having somebody drive to find an issue or have somebody walk to the area, he said.
The drones help alleviate concerns with landowners who don’t want trucks or people on their land. The utility can send drones to areas within its easements but it still contacts landowners before sending a drone in to inspect lines. Westar Energy uses quadcopters or multi-copters, which are four-bladed machines that can fly anywhere from 20 minutes to more than 45 minutes.
“We have a lot of areas our lines traverse that are environmentally sensitive, through wetlands and even through croplands,” Klenklen said.
A new federal law passed earlier this year cleared the way for non-pilots to fly unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes with a Remote Pilot in Command certificate. The designation takes significant training and information although the actual flying of a drone isn’t difficult, he said.
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