Energy company Ameren completes 60-mile drone flight over transmission lines

Ameren worked with Black & Veatch and Collins Aerospace to come up with a solution named Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) drone flights.

Ameren Corp., along with Black & Veatch and Collins Aerospace was able to utilise a BVLOS drone on a non-stop, 60-mile flight to inspect transmission lines. The St. Louis-based energy company worked with Black & Veatch and Collins Aerospace to identify a solution: Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) drone flights. The team now has proven they can inspect more miles of transmission lines faster and safer than ever envisioned. The successful flight demonstrated the maturing technology’s promise of more efficient monitoring of expansive utility assets, especially in remote rural stretches.


In 2017, a BVLOS drone was used to inspect nearly 10 miles of Ameren’s power lines near Newton, Illinois. The 2018 flight, featuring a special use vertical take-off and landing drone, went six times the distance of last year’s flight. This long-range achievement underscores the revolutionary potential of drones in ensuring a resilient power supply, using an eye in the sky and imaging data captured by laser-based profiling called Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR).


"At Ameren, innovation is at the core of all we do, and the solutions we incorporate today, such as BVLOS drones, will enable us to continue to deliver safe, reliable and affordable energy to our customers tomorrow and for generations to come," said James Pierce, BVLOS programme manager and lead of Ameren’s Central Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Department. "We are pleased with the outcome of this 60-mile flight, which demonstrates our commitment to identifying advancements in drone technology to increase reliability and customer satisfaction. Ultimately, the successful deployment of BVLOS drones could revolutionise how Ameren assesses and evaluates the condition of our systems."


Drones are becoming more mainstream, their run-time is improving, and applications continue to rapidly expand. Beyond reducing cost, easier access and improved employee safety, the benefits of Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) flights featuring high-definition images or video offer several advantages such as increased frequency of inspections with improved vantage points, ability to collect greater levels of data analysed to assess transmission assets, improved system reliability and resiliency and reduced asset management costs.


This ultimately will lead to increased customer satisfaction. “Our Control and Non-Payload Communications (CNPC) command and control radio network, along with our WebUAS operations management service, were key to obtaining the airspace authorisations and ensuring technical success of the project,” said Boe Svatek, principal programme manager, UAS Strategic Programs for Collins Aerospace.


Ameren’s achievement, the second and final phase of the pilotless project by the three companies, comes at an evolving time for UAVs and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) governance. Today the FAA prohibits the use of drones beyond an operator’s sight and under other specific circumstances. Black & Veatch and Collins Aerospace obtained an FAA waiver for the recent test given their considerable expertise with drones.


Though BVLOS authorisations remain rare, linear infrastructure inspection requiring BVLOS offer significant promise for improved safety and efficiency over traditional inspection methods. The Ameren flight showed that an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) can collect high-resolution infrastructure integrity data, just like traditionally manned helicopters do today, but at a fraction of the fuel required and with significantly greater flight duration.


This project is a further confirmation that unmanned aerial vehicles can move utilities beyond reactive maintenance by quickly and safely acquiring condition and performance data about their assets, which will lead to improved operations and longer asset life. We can speed inspection time, reduce inspection costs and accelerate the integration of analysed data into a client’s enterprise asset management (EAM) system, for improved decision making,” said Jamare Bates, an FAA-certified remote UAS pilot who heads UAS operations at Black & Veatch.

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