Gulf Power launches drone program

Using drones equipped with infrared to check power lines is far more
efficient and a lot safer for workers, and it’s being done with customer privacy
a priority.

Martha Simmons
April 2020

Whether it’s assessing damage caused by a woodpecker drilling a hole at the top of
a power pole or locating a downed line in an impassible flood zone, Gulf Power has
eyes in the sky: Drones.

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) – a.k.a. drones – are fast becoming a critical tool
for power companies and other utilities. They offer flexibility and cost efficiencies for
the company, industry experts say, and safety enhancements for power line workers.

“Using drones to patrol our power lines will provide additional visibility into potential
issues that may be undetectable to the naked eye, allowing our team to identify
issues and make repairs before an outage occurs,” said Mike Spoor, vice president
of power delivery for Gulf Power. “Taking advantage of this technology will help Gulf
Power improve reliability for our customers in a less intrusive and more efficient

Drawing on the drone experience of sister company Florida Power & Light Company,
Gulf Power has since February been using drones to perform equipment
assessments on overhead power lines in its Pensacola-to-Panama City service area.
The drones can identify potential areas of concern before an outage occurs, and are
being employed in advance of the company’s storm-hardening and reliability-
improvement projects, officials said.

“Drones are ideally suited for inspecting equipment because they can safely and
quickly deliver high-quality photos and videos of our power lines in a way that can
minimize environmental impact and inconvenience for customers along power line
routes,” said Gulf Power spokesman Gordon Paulus.

“Drones can also collect thermal images using infrared technology and assess
vegetation encroachment.”

Paulus said Gulf Power currently is contracting with two teams of two drone pilots per
team. “Our contractors are using Matrice 200 series drones, which weigh about 8
pounds, have 17-inch propellers and are dual-battery powered for nearly 40 minutes.
The drones have two cameras, one for still photos/video and another for infrared.
They have a range of four miles, but our contractors follow FAA guidelines which
allow only line-of-sight distance,” he said.

Customers will reap the benefit of the UAS program by experiencing fewer and
shorter outages.

“The drone assessment program will help to reduce outages by helping to identify
equipment issues in advance of an outage, which allows us to send Gulf Power crews
to make repairs before the outage occurs,” Paulus said. “We have already seen
these proactive assessments prevent outages before they occur.”

With hurricane season about to crank up, Gulf Power expects the drones to make a
big difference in getting the lights turned back on after a storm.

“Following a severe weather event, drones will also help us assess damage in areas
that are flooded or impassable due to fallen trees and debris,” Paulus said. “The
ability to gather damage assessments from areas that are otherwise inaccessible will
help Gulf Power restore power safely and as quickly as possible.”

Drones are expected to dramatically change the role of the electric utility worker,
according to Laura Schultz, senior economist and director of fiscal analysis at the
Rockefeller Institute of Government.

“Electrical power line workers are responsible for installing, maintaining, and
repairing cables and wires in power distribution systems. It is a dangerous job,”
Schultz wrote in a March 2019 report. “In 2017, the profession experienced 26 fatal
work injuries, ranking it the tenth most fatal job in the US. The tasks associated with
the job include driving, pole climbing, and equipment testing and repair. Utility line
workers must respond quickly, often in treacherous weather, to a variety of scenarios
identified by only visual inspection.”

Paulus said the drones will increase safety as well as efficiency. “The drone
assessment program makes pole and line assessments much more efficient, safer
and quicker for Gulf Power engineers who previously did the assessments from the
ground, walking or driving from pole to pole.”

In many circumstances, the drone can operate when the line workers can’t. “The
drone flies in weather appropriate for flight as decided by the FAA guidelines,”
Paulus said. “These assessments allow us to provide reliable service in good
weather and bad.”

Gulf Power is taking multiple steps to ensure that customers aren’t taken by surprise
or worried about their privacy when they see the winged eyes in the sky.

“Gulf Power will be using Federal Aviation Administration-approved drone pilots, who
follow all FAA privacy and flight regulations,” Paulus said. “The contractors will patrol
power lines during normal business hours (8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday),
will wear Gulf Power safety equipment and will display signs in the neighborhood
where they are working.

“In addition, customers will be notified by a call to the phone number on file with Gulf
Power with an automated voice recording days before the assessment takes place,”
he said.

As for privacy concerns, Paulus said, “Our drones only capture images and videos of
Gulf Power equipment, including poles and power lines. The visuals are never
distributed outside of Gulf Power and are stored in a secure location.”

According to Power Magazine, UAS has its origins in a program developed more than
a century ago and the industry now has explosive growth potential.

“The use of UAS, which include aircraft (technically referred to as unmanned aerial
vehicles [UAV]), ground-based controllers, and connecting communications
systems—or more simply, drones—has proliferated since 1916, when the U.S. Navy
developed a rudimentary unmanned aerial torpedo that could fly a guided distance of
1,000 yards. Today, countless startups offer drone technologies with myriad
applications,” Power Magazine Associate Editor Sonal Patel wrote in 2018.

“According to an October report from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), the
addressable market of drone-powered solutions in the world’s power and utilities
sector is worth $9.46 billion.”
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