Maintenance efforts take flight

Maintenance efforts take flight

If there is one thing that electric cooperatives are proud of but not always known for, it’s innovation. Electric co-ops began forming in the 1930s when friends and neighbors in rural America started joining together to bring electricity to their homes and farms which major power companies were unwilling to invest in. Even then, at the very beginning, the innovative way of doing business set co-ops apart. Now, 80 years later, challenges continue to drive innovation, and innovation still drives co-ops. The result is a steady evolution of the way we work.

One challenge is simple: overhead utility equipment spends most of its life suspended 25 to 30 feet in the air. Compounding the issue is equipment in remote locations where wet ground conditions can make work miserable. Linemen climbing poles and rising in bucket trucks is a staple image of the electric utility industry and will be a crucial part of our work for years to come. However, technology has made getting a quick glimpse of that equipment easier without having to send someone up.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), often referred to as drones, are essentially remote-controlled flying vehicles that can be equipped with a variety of tools such as cameras and sensors. Cass County Electric Cooperative recently added one such device, a Phantom 4 quadcopter, to its arsenal of tools. It weighs just over three pounds and looks more like a sea creature than a vehicle capable of flight, but with its compact size comes massive performance.

The Phantom 4 can reach a maximum height of more than 19,000 feet (though CCEC’s pilots are limited to a 400-foot ceiling) and can reach speeds greater than 40 miles per hour. It features an array of sensors that adjust to flight conditions, allowing it to maintain a steady hover in gusting winds. The Phantom 4’s camera is capable of capturing incredibly high-quality video in 4K resolution at 30 frames per second. The pilot sees everything the drone sees while flying, excellent for real-time observation of hard to reach equipment.

Chris Erickson takes a unique "selfie" with CCEC's Phantom 4 drone.

In order to fly a drone for commercial purposes, the aircraft must be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and pilots must obtain Remote Pilot Certification. Chris Erickson, power quality technician, and C.J. Erickson, journeyman lineman, both obtained the certification for CCEC. It involved passing a 120-minute monitored exam on flight concepts and safety specific to a UAS.

“I studied hard. I didn’t know a whole lot about aviation going in,” says Chris Erickson.

Both pilots underwent flight training to get acquainted with the Phantom 4, but Chris Erickson says learning to use it has mostly been a matter of practicing. Watching him bring the drone from 400 feet to gently touch down in the grass at CCEC headquarters on a windy May afternoon, you’d have a hard time guessing that he was relatively new to the experience.

As of May, Chris Erickson has about 60 flights with CCEC’s Phantom 4 under his belt, and it has already paid dividends. Using the drone’s camera, he has already been able to spot issues with pole-top equipment without the need to dispatch a bucket truck, saving line crews time. He sees even more potential for it in the future.

“It will be really useful after storms,” says Chris Erickson. Even equipment that isn’t suspended high in the air can be difficult to access if the ground is overly wet and muddy. The drone will take some of the legwork out of equipment inspections and limit the need for trucks or tracked vehicles to risk getting stuck.

A CCEC crew performing a pole changeout is captured from above.

Chris Erickson plans to outfit the Phantom 4 with a thermal camera to further aid his equipment inspections. He currently uses thermal imaging to help spot issues that are not apparent to the naked eye. Overheating equipment can hint at a malfunction and likely a looming failure that may not show any outward sign until it causes a power outage. Adding a thermal camera to the UAS would literally take CCEC’s maintenance efforts to new heights and could help reduce outages and improve service reliability.

We have come a long way from our humble beginnings 80 years ago. Though cooperatives formed from small group efforts, CCEC strives to stay at the forefront of technological advancement, helping us work safely and more efficiently to provide the best service we can to our members.