Drones-as-a-service: How UAVs and big data are cutting costs for utility companies

The skies are getting crowded with unmanned aerial vehicles deployed to vacuum up information. Here's why that's a good thing.

With so many invisible threats in today's world, it's nice to hear about one that's eminently, unavoidably noticeable: Trees.

Turns out trees are the biggest individual risk to utility lines, poles, and transformers. Trees falling on power lines are the No. 1 cause of power outages and can cause disastrous fires. Trees are also the single biggest cost for utilities, which spend $6-$8 billion annually inspecting and trimming trees to keep them away from power lines.

Currently, the inspection process includes either helicopters carrying a technology called LiDAR that captures 3D images of the trees or manual inspection by ground crews.

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A LiDAR map of a densely-treed area.

Naturally, both are costly and time-consuming. But there's a better way: Drones. A company called Sharper Shape is using LiDAR, along with analysis tools and long drone flights, to build 3D maps identifying individual trees, which utility companies can use to measure imminent threats.

You may be droned out by now ("they're souped up RC toys!" you cry), but a new generation of companies is using drones and big data analytics to streamline infrastructure inspection in industries like mining, oil and gas, and agriculture. "Drones as a service" is now a booming sector, and the skies are getting crowded with unmanned aerial vehicles designed to vacuum up information.

Aside from the advent of drones, one of the big breakthroughs allowing this to happen is reduced cost and size for advanced sensors. LiDAR, for example, is now light enough to be carried by drones, which makes it perfect for 3D mapping applications. Sharper Shape works with utilities, using drones to inspect the tens of thousands of miles of power lines and collect the necessary data to keep the power grid operating.

Prior to using drones, the information collected was manually reviewed and, in many cases, wasn't digital. Now all the 3D models -- historical and current -- can be quickly analyzed based on different circumstances, so potential issues can be addressed without delay.

In addition to analyzing the current data for risks, utilities can also leverage the information to forecast how much money they should be spending on field work so there are no surprises to the budget.

The result is similar to what's happened in warehouse and shipping logistics over the last couple years. Much like Amazon has used automated warehouse technology to both speed up and lower the cost of shipping, the power of drones and big data is being utilized to save on inspection costs and unscheduled maintenance while decreasing grid downtime.

We've been hearing a lot about drones over the past couple years, but most of the attention has been on consumer toys. The real promise of drones is in enterprise applications, and as the FAA considers letting commercials drones fly over populated areas, we're finally starting to see that promise fulfilled.

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