Drones aren’t just fancy gadgets for tech nerds anymore.
Utility companies are now using the high-tech devices to help restore power faster and more efficiently in the wake of natural disasters like Hurricane Irma, keeping the industry on the cutting-edge of a technology once only used by the military.
The unmanned aircrafts weigh around 10 pounds and can fly for about 20 minutes at a time, allowing power companies to get a bird’s eye view of power lines and identify any problems keeping the lights on.
Two years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration gave the green light to Florida utility companies like Florida Power and Light and Gulf Power to operate the drones, which have high-quality video cameras capable of taking quick photos and video of hard-to-reach areas.
Since then, power companies have embraced the technology as a way to make electricity restoration safer, less expensive and all-around a more efficient experience than ever before.
At $6,000 a pop, drones aren’t cheap, but the pros outweigh the cons for power companies like Gulf Power, which say the unmanned aircrafts make workers’ jobs less dangerous and easier.
Drones have the ability to fly into areas which could be dangerous to utility workers. In Florida that means swampy areas with possible downed trees, which require workers to be extra cautious, taking investigation efforts slowly which can be time-consuming.
Drones have their limitations, as they can only fly for a few minutes and need While drones may not give a 100 percent visibility and may not match up entirely to manpower, companies still feel they’re an important asset
“Does it beat having somebody on the pole, maybe not,” said Gulf Power line engineer Jason Benton Thursday at the Florida Energy Summit in Fort Lauderdale. “But you get a pretty good idea of what you need to do [to restore power.]”
The high-tech investigatory tool is relatively new to the utility scene.
Southern Company, which owns Gulf Power, started investigating drones for power line work just two years ago in 2015 and began officially using the devices at the beginning of 2017.
Other companies like Florida Power and Light began using the aircrafts in 2015, ramping up efforts in recent weeks as the state recovered from Hurricane Irma, a monster Category 4 storm which made landfall last month.
Irma was a groundbreaking storm for utility companies, which were able to put the high-tech drones in action to help restore electricity to customers in record time.
Irma’s high-speed winds and torrential rain damaged numerous power lines across the state and power companies had to move quickly to turn the lights back on for nearly 7 million people who were left in the dark after the storm.
The FAA responded quickly to Irma’s devastation, issuing a total of 132 airspace authorizations to ensure power companies could survey the damage and restore power faster.
FPL used nearly 50 drones to survey parts of the state inaccessible to power trucks, deploying drones as soon as an hour after Irma’s winds subsided.
Drones are quickly becoming a game-changer for the industry -- and they only stand to become more and more advanced as time goes on.
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the hurricane response will be looked back upon as a landmark in the evolution of drone usage in this country,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.