Drones have special data-gathering abilities that energy utilities have recently discovered. Also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), drones can scan miles of transmission lines or zoom into an individual transformer. They can be stationed in an installation or accompany a mobile crew, and can be dispatched frequently, on short-notice, to provide real-time asset visibility.
Field services in utilities are leading the way using drones to record images and video for on-demand inspection, preventive maintenance, and even power line construction. There is untapped value for this data in other parts of the organization. Currently, most data from drones remains siloed within the business unit that recorded it in the first place and lacks an established path to other areas of the business. Even when this information finds its way through the organization, the enormous volume of it makes it hard for people to examine and understand. Utilities may need to rethink their business processes around generating, transmitting, analyzing, and distributing valuable and time-critical information wherever it may be used. How do you streamline the workflow and the decision-making process? How does data from drones enhance operations?
The data produced from drones completes the set of information that utilities need to get a comprehensive picture of their business. The drone’s on-demand availability and flexible scope ties together information from wide-area, pre-scheduled sources (satellites and airplanes) and narrow-area, continuous sensors (fixed cameras and SCADA). This combined data is necessary to create high-fidelity computer models that describe how the utility’s assets behave. With these models, utilities can apply a wide range of data analytics methods to extract insights from vast amounts of visual data.
Data from drones lets utilities get a full picture of their business
The cornerstone of the model is the human knowledge and experience that feed the machine learning model. These models can spot patterns in huge amounts of information, and they get better with more detailed and frequent data that only drones can provide. Beyond data collection, drone data is especially valuable when combined with the knowledge of business operations that people already have. Organizational knowledge from different business areas is essential to set-up and train the analytic models, incorporate the business processes, and improve overall decision making.
There are many cases where data from drones is essential to understand how the utilities’ assets behave and how to apply that knowledge to enhance end-to-end business operations.
T&D (Transmission and Distribution) construction of capital projects
Data collected by drones needs to be integrated into the entire start-to-end capital project lifecycle allowing for improved planning, materials readiness, site monitoring, progress reporting, and overall project management. Drone data is especially valuable during the initial planning phase. Detailed information from the field that drones provide improves the project estimation accuracy. Additionally, drone data can complement the project walkdown activity and detailed design reviews ensuring alignment of plans for estimation, project plans, and forecasting.
Drone data can provide up-to-date information on pre-construction mobilization and material staging, relaying accurate information to the project team. Such valuable information avoids unnecessary delays and rework if, for example, material or equipment is not delivered as expected, triggering immediate notifications to take remedial actions. Ongoing progress and job-site monitoring information can be easily collected and share broadly with all project team members from field personnel to senior management. Near real-time information can be used to track progress from contractors and third parties, and to use that information for invoicing and payments. Most importantly, drones can improve job-site safety allowing field personnel to rely on drones in unsafe spots or in hazardous situations.
Managing physical assets across the enterprise through their entire life-cycle can be a challenging, dangerous, and dirty job. Drones can assist organizations to gather critical information to support their strategic plans and optimize ROI in a sustainable, safe, and compliant manner. By combining asset management applications with drones, organizations can monitor and maintain fixed infrastructure and facilities in remote or hard-to-reach areas. The same technology can be deployed to inspect moving assets such as field service vehicles.
Drones data can also help improve various aspects of asset management – not only in building and maintaining asset inventory, but also in developing capital improvement plan, developing O&M (Operation and Maintenance) strategies, performing routine maintenance and inspections and monitoring critical assets. Combined with other data sources, data from drones can build a reliable asset inventory that can be shared across the enterprise, from engineering to maintenance and construction and beyond, improving workflow and decision-making. Drones can be dispatched to verify the number and condition of the assets from direct observations. They can also collect data more frequently and economically than typical inspections cycles and methods. More detailed, frequent and current asset data improves the decision-making process, helping finalize the required capital improvement plan or O&M plan for assets in need.
Ultimately, drones provide valuable data from which insights specific for each group can be generated. But the real value will be realized when those insights are put into practice in field services, as they currently have, and across other areas of the organization. Integrating this new data stream and the associated analytics in an end-to-end business process creates business value by improving safety, optimizing costs, facilitating regulatory compliance, and increasing overall control of the infrastructure.
Gerardo Broussi is an energy and utilities expert at PA Consulting. Gregg Edeson is the reliability and resiliency lead at PA Consulting, and the ReliabilityOne program director.
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