3 Drone Inspection Data Management Tips to Help Utilities & Co-Ops Get the Most Value

by: 6 min read

In this article:

  • Learn about the “data wall”
  • Understand how utilities overcome the “data wall”
  • Discover how to prioritize inspection data into actionable insights

Introduction

Traversing more than 5 million miles of terrain, the overhead powerline network in the US is one of the most expansive systems in the world. Preventative maintenance is a monumental task that presents all sorts of challenges for utilities every year.

This article will help utility asset managers understand the value of using drones for inspection purposes and how to overcome the “data wall” when switching to a technology-driven methodology.

Using drones to inspect utility power lines is a faster and safer alternative to traditional inspection methods, such as walking, driving, and climbing. However, drones are only a piece of the puzzle and collecting data is only one step in the complete inspection process.

When looking at the full picture, the workflow of data processing and analysis is far more complex and will likely be a daunting task without supporting software tools. 

Even with a team of the best subject matter experts in the industry, most electric utilities and co-ops will get stuck in a dilemma we refer to as “The Data Wall.” This is the point in time where your current systems and processes are overloaded with new datasets and your return on investment starts to decrease rapidly. 

After reaching this point, many utilities will give up and say, “we tried drones and didn’t see much value,” which is understandable, yet far from true.

If this is you, don’t let yourself believe that the highest quality data you’ve ever collected from your system is completely useless because you ran into “The Data Wall”. With purposeful business objectives, the right tools, and a reputable technology partner even the most complex data walls can be reduced to rubble in no time.

Let us explain how it’s done. 

Streamline Data Collection

Drones quickly became popular for power line inspections because of the significant safety improvements. Our first proof of concept in 2017 was based on the hypothesis that drones would be mostly beneficial for inspecting distribution poles that couldn’t be accessed by ground crews.

These distribution poles represent about 10-15% of the average utility’s system. After seeing the high-resolution images, we quickly realized we were only seeing the tip of the iceberg. For years, utility managers were relying on low-quality images from digital cameras captured from 45 feet below the lines to assess their assets. Drones on the other hand, can get closer to the lines while mitigating the safety risks with electrical contact and reveal so much more detail about the system.

drone inspections
This image is an example of the perspective an inspector has from below the lines, and the low-quality of imagery we used to receive from ground-based inspections.

The first tip for tackling the data wall is to streamline data collection. Being able to see your assets more clearly and position the drone virtually anywhere in space, means you can optimize the amount of data that is necessary to perform a thorough inspection remotely. An experienced inspection partner will know which types of assemblies require extra attention versus the poles that are simply helping to keep conductors suspended overhead. 

Associating Raw Data to Facilities

Imagine a concerned citizen texted you an image of a pole that was arcing uncontrollably but offered no other information. What is the first question you would ask? Perhaps you would need to know the location for that image to be valuable. Drones with GPS geotagging capabilities make the location of the asset easily discernible.

This is one of the most overlooked benefits of drones. GPS-enabled devices record location metadata in each image, including the images that are captured from various angles and locations that are not always in close proximity to the asset. This makes associating images in your database to the corresponding utility asset much easier.

Clearsight inspection teams are made up of experts who understand this important detail. Our innovative technology coupled with our experts ensures that you do not corrupt your entire database trying to locate and tag an asset with its exact location. 

Transforming Raw Data into Actionable Insights

When inspecting utility assets, knowing what component you’re looking at is very important; however, understanding the utility’s business objectives and being able to prioritize findings to match these objectives requires complex problem-solving experience.

As the number of poles inspected continues to rise, as does the relative number of findings. After inspecting just a feeder or two, most utilities will have a mountain of data on minor defects such as chipped insulators, loose ground wires, etc. These types of findings are one of the building blocks of the data wall, and not having a prioritization schedule can make the rest of the workflow overwhelming.

drone inspections
Using drones to gather inspection data is a faster and safer alternative to traditional inspection methods.

We believe this is a key area for artificial intelligence and computer vision. To make the process more efficient, we find and present imagery for assemblies with electrical safety devices or critical equipment. Whereas every three-phase pole should have at least three insulators, not every pole will have reclosers or a transformer bank, so the ability to efficiently sort raw data streamlines the analysis process.

It’s important to note that finding critical assets and equipment is one challenge but understanding how the utility will use the data is another. Is this inspection project due to rising wildfire danger and you need to mitigate risks for the business, or is this part of a regular preventative maintenance routine? Providing your inspection partner with clearly defined objectives at the start of a project will help you achieve your goals. 

So, how does Clearsight fit in?

Clearsight offers a streamlined inspection solution to handle each step of the process for our utility and co-op partners from start to finish. Combining aerial inspection technologies, data management systems, artificial intelligence, an industry-leading team of utility experts, and our world-renowned Constellation values and safety culture, we offer superior value for our utility partners.

To date, we have more than 100 utility and cooperative customers around the country. Many of our customers have their own in-house drone inspection programs, and our innovative solutions blend seamlessly to eliminate the data walls and ensure their personnel can maintain focus on more critical business. Let us help you eliminate the data wall and get the most value out of your drone inspections.

Related Reading: 6 Key Insights to Help Utilities Evaluate Companies Using Drones to Inspect Electrical Assets

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