European Utilities Increase Drones Use for Inspections

Some of Europe's biggest energy companies are looking toward drones for remote inspection of infrastructure with continent-wide regulation ahead.

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The European Commission is working on drone regulations which would facilitate commercial beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) drone operations on the continent, and plans to disclose them by the end of the year, according to Reuters. For utility companies with miles of infrastructure such as power and pipelines to inspect, garnering official leeway to utilize autonomous drones in the stead of conventional workers would be a huge boon. 

In the meantime, both Italy’s Snam and France’s RTE energy companies have completed test flights using long-distance unmanned aerial vehicles to fly over pipelines and power lines at low altitudes. As Europe’s largest gas utility company, Snam would benefit hugely from a cohesive, well-established set of commercial regulations regarding BVLOS, as being able to remotely inspect its infrastructure in the mountainous terrain of the Italian Apennine landscapes would not only be efficient, but cut costs. 

Similarly, RTE has completed test flights to inspect 31 miles (50 kilometers) of transmission lines to collect data and create virtual replicas of the infrastructure, in order to gain a better understanding of its structural integrity. During the next two years, the company plans on investing $5.6 million (4.8 million euros) on drone technology to ramp these efforts up.

“It’s a real game changer,” said PricewaterhouseCoopers partner Michal Mazur about drone use in infrastructure inspection. “They’re 100 times faster than manual measurement, more accurate than helicopters and, with AI devices on board, could soon be able to fix problems.”

Germany’s second-largest energy company, Innogy, has also turned toward drones in order to maximize business and increase efficiency. The company uses drones within the line of sight to inspect portions of the 113,090 miles of power lines it manages. “You are not only saving time but also money,” explained Innogy’s key account manager Sven Bender.

As for the United States, Colorado-based Xcel Energy Inc. was the first American utility company to gain Federeal Aviation Administration approval to conduct BVLOS operations earlier this year. ULC Robotics, which provides a variety of technology used by energy companies such as Xcel, is confident that domestic utilities companies are just as eager as their European counterparts to ramp up drone implementation. 

“While only a handful of beyond visual line of sight flights have been granted in the utility space, we believe developments in long-range flight are going to advance within the next two to three years,” said ULC Business Development Manager Tom Barracca. 

Ultimately, it’s only a matter of time before governmental regulations meet corporate lobbying and mutual compromise to get BVLOS operations off the ground in a substantial manner. There is simply too much money in the industry, and sophisticated programming authorities can largely rely on for safety, not to dive into this particular opportunity. If the European Commission’s claims that thorough regulations will be disclosed by the end of the year are correct, and drone implementation by Europe’s major energy companies continues to grow, it’s safe to say that inspections of infrastructure on the continent will only ramp up further as the years go by.