Westar Energy uses drones to increase efficiency, save dollars

drones for transmission line inspections

[Editor’s Note: Westar Energy partnered with Kansas State University’s Polytechnic Campus in 2013 to create a drone program.]

This post originally appeared on http://cjonline.com/news/business/2016-12-26/westar-energy-uses-drones-increase-efficiency-save-dollars.

Westar Energy is using drone technology to inspect equipment, manage emergency situations and navigate difficult-to-reach areas, making work faster and often safer for company employees.

The utility company partnered in 2013 with Kansas State University’s Polytechnic Campus to create an unmanned aircraft systems program. In 2015, it opened one of the nation’s largest enclosed unmanned flight facilities at the polytechnic campus in Salina. Recently, Westar deployed the drones commercially in the field. It has used or will use them for everything from inspecting boilers to traversing challenging territory to get a bird’s eye view of transmission lines.

“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.”

Along with cost savings, though, comes risk reduction for employees and contractors, he said. For instance, during an ice storm, the less employees have to travel to determine the cause of an outage, the better.

Incorporating drones “into the inspection process of boilers adds an element of safety,” said Sam Sharp, a K-State Polytechnic USA Laboratory researcher and Westar’s primary liaison. “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. Because there are no lights inside the boiler and a GPS signal is not accessible, extensive training is needed to control the aircraft. This is one of the most valuable applications of a drone within the energy sector, so the lengthy training is worth it.”

Klenklen said the drones are primarily being used in rural areas to focus on information about transmission lines, specifically high-voltage lines that are 69,000 volts and above.

“There still are some airspace restrictions in some areas, such as Wichita and even here in downtown Topeka,” he said, adding that UACs still are required to be in line of sight of the operators, per Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

“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.”

There are waivers to operate in extended line of sight or beyond line of sight circumstances, Klenklen said. He named BNSF as a company that is allowed to go beyond the line of sight. Amazon recently delivered its first package by drone in Britain.

In an industry in which customer satisfaction is often tied to reliability and stability, drones can identify problems and even find potential issues before there’s an outage.

“It’s a lot faster for us to detect issues with these being deployed, versus having somebody drive to find an issue or have somebody walk in,” he said.

The drones also help to alleviate issues with landowners who don’t want trucks or people traipsing through their land.

“We have a lot of areas our lines traverse that are environmentally sensitive, through wetlands and even through croplands,” Klenklen said. The company can send drones to areas within Westar’s easements, but they still make contact with landowners and anyone affected before sending a drone into other areas to inspect lines.

The UAC industry is highly regulated by the FAA. When Westar launched its current program in 2013, FAA rules from the previous year required that the company be involved in a research project, Klenklen said.

Initial regulations required that anyone flying an unmanned aircraft also be a pilot. But a new rule, referred to as Part 107, Klenklen said, passed earlier this year that cleared the way for non-pilots to fly unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes with a Remote Pilot in Command certificate.

The actual act of flying the drone isn’t difficult, he said, but there’s significant training and information that goes into getting the RPIC designation and in understanding what to do if something goes wrong.

“It’s actually fairly simple with the technology,” he said. “I could probably give you about a five-minute lesson and you could pretty easily fly it. You have to know where you’re flying; you have to know the airspace that you’re flying in.”

But it’s also stressful to fly one. Before the Part 107 rule went into effect earlier this year, Westar employees who were flying drones put their manned pilot licenses on the line when they flew.

“It’s kind of nerve-wracking that we’re putting that at risk when we fly. How I explain that is if you go fly a remote-control airplane and you crash it, then you’re calling the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) and everybody because of the damages that were incurred,” he said. “They’ve backed off of that a lot from when it was first conceptualized.”

Westar Energy uses quadcopters or multi-copters, which are four-bladed machines that can fly anywhere from 20 minutes to more than 45 minutes.

Information is drawn from drones in a couple of ways, Klenklen said.

”We have real-time monitoring, where we can see obviously what the camera or what the ship’s seeing on the screen,” he said. “We also have it where it (the drone) collects high-definition video and photography, that when the ship comes back, we’re able to download and provide further analysis.”

Klenklen is excited for the future uses of drones.

“The potential is unlimited. Not only in our industry, but others as well,” he said. “Look at what real estate folks are doing with them now. The pipeline industry — even our public first responders, fire departments, medical services, law enforcement. The applications and the need for them is unlimited.”

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