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Drones for Disaster Response and Mitigation

May 14, 2021


Unmanned aerial systems (UAS), commonly referred to as drones, are demonstrated technologies that continuously add value across the energy sector for customers, workers, and operators. As new use cases arise the technology improves and costs decline. The number of UAS devices is expected to continue increasing across the global energy industry. According to a new Guidehouse Insights report, Unmanned Aerial Systems and Drones for Critical Energy Infrastructure, the global utility UAS market is expected to reach $10.6 billion in 2030, dominated by transmission and distribution infrastructure inspections.

UAS and Drones Revenue by Industry, World Markets: 2021-2030


(Source: Guidehouse Insights)

As the number of natural disasters increases the impact on aging critical energy infrastructure becomes more severe. UAS for preventative and reactive storm response and mitigation has emerged as a useful and demonstrable tool. UAS are beneficial for providing evacuation routes and performing search and rescue missions, the technology can also improve worker safety by providing remote visualization to affected areas without exposing crews to potentially dangerous conditions.

One of the better-known examples of utility UAS storm response is the combined effort between Southern Company and Duke Energy in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in 2017. Southern Company estimated that its drones were used to pull over 72,000 feet of pilot rope for conductor wire and reduced the workplan from 6-8 months to only 8 weeks. UAS were also used to locate and reconnect wooden poles in the jungle, eliminating the need for manual reconnaissance—improving worker safety.

UAS and Mitigation Plans

In the wake of the devastating winter storm that hit Texas in February 2021, winter weather preparedness and winterizing generating assets became a key topic of discussion among asset owners, distribution retailers, government officials, and regulators. This is an area primed for UAS evolution. For example, in Iowa, several wind operators use helicopters and drones for de-icing and winterizing turbines by deploying aircrafts to drop hot water or chemicals on the turbines before and after a storm. Going forward, this use case could become commonplace as storm preparedness and disaster mitigation plans are prioritized.

UAS are included in wildfire mitigation plans across several utilities in California, indicating their value in not only reacting to a natural disaster, but also as a preventative measure for inspecting and monitoring the integrity of critical assets. Additionally, UAS improve the process for reenergizing lines and quickly restoring power following public safety power shut off and high risk weather events. In this case, even though the UAS is not providing services for direct storm response, it is aiding in the restoration of power as part of a larger mitigation effort.

The Regulatory Framework Within the US Encourages UAS for Natural Disaster Response

Within the US, UAS operators adhere to guidelines under Part 107, which the Federal Aviation Administration enforces. Part 107 requires that a UAS must be within the operator’s visual line of sight, posing a limitation on range and applications for an UAS. In emergency situations, however, critical industries organizations directly affected by the disaster can apply for an expedited waiver for remote pilot and beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights. For utilities, BVLOS flying can reduce UAS deployment time to an affected area, increase cost savings and visibility, and reduce outage times.

UAS and drones have emerged as pivotal technologies for operations and maintenance, vegetation management, and disaster response in the energy industry. This trend and more are explained in Guidehouse Insights’ UAS and Drones for Critical Energy Infrastructure report. This report forecasts the market for UAS across the utility, oil & gas, and mining industries. It provides insights from both a regional and technology perspective.