Above the Lines

Drone Trial Takes Flight

Jon Leman controls a quad-rotor drone outside Clearwater Power headquarters in Lewiston.

Clearwater Power is testing a prospective tool to help achieve its mission to provide members with safe, reliable and cost-based energy: unmanned aircraft systems, or drones.

The Federal Aviation Administration authorized drones for commercial use in 2015. Since then, many industries such as emergency response, law enforcement, agriculture and utilities are using them with resounding success. The last few years have seen significant advancements in drone technology, including sensors and related software.

Given the success other utilities are having with this technology, Clearwater Power has decided to implement a trial program to assess drone use in support of engineering and operations in its service territory. The inaugural flight took place in early May. Jon Leman, Clearwater Power’s chief engineering and technology offi- cer and FAA-certified UAS pilot, recently teamed up with general foreman Jeff Braden to conduct power line inspections along Highway 6 in the Princeton and Harvard areas.

The inspection identified minor pole-top issues that were corrected in late May during a previously planned outage.

“We are able to see things that we simply can’t see from the ground, and now we can see them without climbing the pole,” Jeff says. “It really reduced the amount of time needed to inspect pole-top equipment and should be even more beneficial in getting visuals on equipment in difficult terrain.”

The possible benefits of drone technology include:

  • Improved reliability: Drones allow operators to complete inspections in less time than traditional methods, especially in areas with poor access or rough terrain. This allows for more frequent inspection of difficult areas and helps identify minor issues before they become major problems. Likewise, thermal inspection of substations with drone infrared cameras improves the likelihood of identifying equipment issues before they develop into unplanned outages. Overall, drones can amplify preventive maintenance efforts that enhance electrical sys- tem reliability.
  • Improved safety: Inspecting power lines and poles can be dan- gerous work. Drones help reduce the amount of time linework-
    ers must spend near energized equipment. This is particularly important in areas where pole-top access is difficult.
  • Improved efficiency: Traditional inspection methods often require expensive equipment and staffing. Utilities can reduce costs associated with labor, equipment and transporta- tion by using drones. This would allow Clearwater Power’s line crews to focus more time on system improvements or restoration and less time trying to locate problems.

“We’re implementing drone use carefully and in compliance with state and federal requirements,” Jon says. “We are early in our trial, but the technology is already proving to be a useful and cost- effective tool in our efforts to pro- vide quality electric service to the cooperative’s membership.”

Fly Safely at Home

As drones become more affordable, more of them are used for play, too. While they can be a great way to have fun outdoors, these gadgets also bring safety concerns. Drones (or remote- controlled airplanes) should never be flown near power lines, substations or other electrical equipment. Remember these safety tips when flying a remote- controlled device:

  • Keep a safe distance from electrical equipment when you fly. If contact is accidentally made with a power line
    or a transformer inside a substation, members can be left without electricity.
  • Do not try to retrieve your remote- controlled device if it becomes lodged in electrical equipment. Call Clearwater Power, and lineworkers will respond.
  • Keep the remote-controlled device in sight at all times.
  • Avoid flying if weather conditions are unfavorable. High winds could cause you to lose control.

Additional information is available at the Federal Aviation Administration website.

Members in the area can expect advanced notification when Clearwater Power plans to have drones along a specific easement.