ComEd Looks to the Future of Drones

Many electric utilities leverage Unmanned Air-craft Systems (UASs or drones). Commonwealth Edison Company (ComEd) began considering the use of UASs in 2011-12, and we began using them in 2015. Though ComEd’s use of UASs is in a relatively early stage of development, the following are some uses, learnings, challenges and  plans to date.

ComEd’s long-term vision for UASs involves boundless opportunities to leverage this technology with internal governance and oversight:
Conduct planned and emergent missions, such as in hard-to-access areas (e.g., wetlands,
railroads, heavy vegetation, risky terrain) and from vantage points not feasible using existing assessment methods
• Conduct storm assessments
• Predict the likelihood and consequence of system failure using advanced analytics
• Govern internal and external UAS users on the system
• Engage in ongoing research and development
• Seek partnerships (e.g., universities and emergency response agencies)
• Contract UAS services (e.g. education and training, missions and data analytics)
• Maintain regulatory influence
• Engage in security applications (e.g., remote system monitoring and protection from non-
ComEd-sanctioned UASs)
• Support mutual assistance (by sending crews with UAS capabilities along with operating
crews to assist other utilities)
• Capture non-operational videos (e.g., promotional and training)

ComEd’s UAS flight missions since 2015 have totaled more than 120 and have taken place for a variety of use cases.

Initial mission requests within substations involved capturing aerial images of substation equipment for help with developing maintenance schedules. UASs were used to capture over-head images of transformers that would otherwise have required de-energizing to capture. UAS-captured images of static wire poles prevented the need to have employees climb those poles. The condition of perimeter fencing was captured without having to walk the perimeter, and captured images were more robust than what are traditionally captured from the ground. Recent substation missions have involved the use of an infrared camera with the UAS to identify and evaluate equipment hot spots under the guidance of thermographers. This task was completed in significantly less time than is feasible from the ground.

Transmission Infrastructure
The amount of uninterrupted ground that manned helicopters can cover compared to UASs
flown within line of sight (with limited battery power) makes wholesale replacement of helicopters by UASs highly unlikely. That said, there are opportunities for increased efficiencies
on transmission systems using UASs (such as case-by-case image requests and birds’ nest assessments). Also, some transmission structures are located in areas where helicopters cannot access (such as areas of high infrastructure congestion) and UASs may prove the perfect tools to capture desired images instead. Some of our transmission missions so far involved looking for specific defects on structures, tasks that were completed while using a UAS in much less time than if each structure had been walked down. Also, the UAS proved valuable in many hard-to-access areas.

Distribution Infrastructure
One of the most obvious benefits of UASs on distribution systems is the ability to capture aerial images that are currently only available “pole-by-pole” by climbing structures or using aerial lift equipment. This is especially valuable when one considers the volume of damage (such as lightning strikes) that tend to impact the tops of distribution infrastructure. Distribution system missions to date have resulted in the identification of defects not visible from the ground. Also, numerous missions have taken place in areas where traditional walking assessments have not been feasible (such as over wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas, bodies of water, terrain under power lines densely covered with vegetation, etc.).

Rights -of -Way
Many electric utility organizations are large land owners, which when these parcels of land are accessible to the public, presents significant maintenance challenges. Some of our UAS right-of-way missions have involved capturing the extent of public dumping. Images were used to help with cleanup management. Future right-of-way flights are expected to also be proactive so sites can also be monitored for dumping activities. Benefits of flights in these areas have primarily been injury/illness mitigation (sites are not ideal for walking as many hazards are hidden) and efficiency.

Storm Damage Assessments
Storm damage assessments with UASs are the next frontier for us. We’ve learned a lot from the utilities who have already leveraged UASs after storms; we’ve worked extensively with internal emergency preparedness professionals and we’ve hosted discussions with emergency response personnel. A task force is collaborating currently on the integration of UASs for storms on the short term and in future phases of the program’s implementation.

Other Uses
Other utility uses include environmental and safety missions, training and other video shoots, vegetation assessments, land surveys, mapping missions, STEM education and outreach, etc.

System Clearances
With the exception of select high voltage transformers (where images were captured by flying adjacent to equipment), and equipment that had been deenergized for other reasons, flights were conducted over energized equipment. As we await final results from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) related to proximity of drones to energized equipment, flights have largely remained at least 10 feet away from energized equipment.

UAS Pilots
So far, all UAS pilots on ComEd’s system have been ComEd employees, volunteering to help phase in a UAS program. Initial pilots, as required under our previous Section 333 Exemption from the FAA, were credentialed as private pilots at a minimum. Internal pilot resources are being expanded as select employees are securing the Remote Pilot in Command certification (as required under the FAA’s Part 107). ComEd pilot credentials also involve platform-specific training with demonstrated proficiency and supervised flights on a regular basis to maintain currency. Chief pilots help us assess intangibles as well, such as the level of ongoing judgement required to ensure safe missions around people, places and things.

As flight missions have taken place across our various systems, we have also required pilots to understand and protect against the risks associated with the equipment over which they fly. Further mitigating risks, missions typically include an area subject matter expert as part of the flight mission team.


UAS Platforms
ComEd owns a variety of UASs with various functionalities and they have helped us evaluate the best features for specific use cases. An early platform, the DJI S900, served us well, but also proved to be more complicated (to set up, use and maintain) than is necessary for our fleet long term. The smaller UASs, such as the DJI Mavic, seem to serve us best for select distribution system missions (given the inability for them to bridge phases). The Aeryon Skyranger has been
valuable for missions requiring higher zoom capabilities, longer flight times, stability in higher winds, etc. Despite the almost constant release of UASs with new and enhanced capabilities, some of the older models continue to meet the needs we pre-identified. Amongst the lessons we’ve learned, fully understanding system changes associated with UAS software upgrades was one of the most valuable. The updates are important to keep up with and to launch on all plat-forms, but they’re even more important to fully understand. Flight, maintenance and/or training protocols may require adjusting, depending on what changes in relation to software up-grades, and it’s better to identify and adjust for that proactively.

What’s Next?
ComEd is evaluating financial and non-financial benefits of UASs as part of a formal business case process in order to successfully move forward to the next phase of our program. Our vision includes integrating a hybrid program that involves internal and external (contract) resources – an approach that will allow our internal program to evolve according to resource availability and the continued assessment of benefits, without compromising our ability to meet internal UAS demands.

Our approach to integrating this technology has been very measured, with a focus on safety, compliance and value all along the way. Appreciating that UASs have limitations (such as use in some heavy vegetative environments), we’ve become increasingly convinced that when it comes to use cases in this industry, the sky’s the limit!

Linda G. Rhodes, CSP is a Manager of Projects at Commonwealth Edison Company (ComEd) for a Strategic Initiatives group and is the UAS Program Manager.

Linda G. Rhodes


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