Power Giant Eversource Enlists Drone to Help Service Lines

  • Staff photo by Don Himsel UAV pilot Sam Johnson makes adjustments before Thursday's demonstration flight for Eversource in Nashua.

Nashua Telegraph
Published: 8/4/2016 11:26:14 PM
Modified: 8/5/2016 9:37:05 AM
Nashua, n.h. — The region’s largest power provide got up close and personal with some of its transmission equipment Thursday using a new tool with roots stretching to the hobby world.

Pembroke, N.H.-based JBI Helicopter, which provides helicopter service for Eversource in New Hampshire to make regularly scheduled inspection flights, brought one of its unmanned aerial vehicles for a part-demonstration, part-inspection exercise over lines near downtown Nashua.

Transmission operations manager Carol Burke said Thursday’s exercise was a combination inspection and evaluation of JBI’s ability to work with the unmanned aircraft.

“They offered because we were already doing helicopter patrols on the system,” she said.

JBI, which operates a squadron of unmanned aerial vehicles — or UAVs — both big and small, brought a multirotored DJI S-1000 outfitted with camera capabilities that would enable a two-person team to fly and record images of power line poles that run between Eversource substations.

Spanning about 30 inches around, the aircraft features eight rotors radiating on spokelike arms that work in conjunction to lift a carbon-fiber frame that carries not only itself, but a slew of tools for capturing and recording images from an aerial, and up-close, perspective.

“We will take all the images they provide us, take a look at them, and see if there are any assets that need to be replaced or maintained,” Burke said.

The aircraft, a grown-up variation of what has become popular with hobbyists, is a new tool that provides easier and better inspections under safer conditions.

JBI’s Franz Loew said on Thursday that the unmanned flyers can be used to get up close to bridges, wind turbines, and even into places like quarries — not as easily accessible using bigger aircraft.

Rules govern where and how commercial UAV operators can fly. Pre-flight procedures included communication with the Federal Aviation Administration and the air traffic controllers at Boire Field in Nashua.

“Every day, someone’s coming up with a new application for these,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface for the kinds of things we can use these UAVs for. It’s an exciting time for everybody.”

Eversource and JBI team members met on Lock Street near the railroad underpass Thursday. Signs and orange cones outlined an observation zone. A large video monitor provided observers a chance to watch exactly what the miniature flyer was seeing through one of its onboard cameras.

After a brief safety meeting, the JBI crew carried their UAV down a dirt access road that paralleled the power lines.

Pilot Sam Johnson provided a basic overview of how the pilot controls the aircraft, using a device he wore on a harness strapped over his shoulders.

He described how his controller, similar to the style used by hobbyists to fly model planes, has small, thumb-operated levers and switches that control how the aircraft is oriented in the air. As the pilot, he, too, is able to see where he is going much the same way as if he was actually sitting inside the UAV through a live, wireless video feed he watches on a monitor mounted to a tripod set up directly in front of him at his flying position on the ground.

Johnson described the aircraft as a professional-level, top-of-the-line UAV that relies on the same flight principals as a hobbyist-level UAV, but it’s “much more capable than a typical off-the-shelf product.”

After a brief but very focused set of pre-flight safety steps, Johnson lifted the aircraft off and on its way north along the wires, pausing at one pole, reaching about 60 feet in the air.

Once in a hovering position, Loew, watching on his own monitor and holding his own control device, called out instructions for Johnson to adjust the altitude and proximity of the aircraft to the pole as he panned and zoomed the video camera.

Nearby, an Eversource crew looked on as Loew snapped photos of the wooden arms protruding from the poles. The photos provide a close-up view that would be impossible to see from the ground and, according to Loew, much more difficult to see from a larger helicopter even if it was equipped with a gyroscopic device to steady an on-board camera.

The flight lasted about 15 minutes, about the maximum time one battery will allow. Johnson brought the aircraft back to a smooth landing on the ground so he could swap out a fresh battery, which is about the size of a brick, for another flight.

“We never get closer than we need to get,” Loew said. “We take the input from Eversource engineers as to what they’d like to see. We look at hardware, cross arms, everything. It’s just so that they can stay on top of their system.”

Eversource performs regular inspection of its lines every two years, spokeswoman Kaitlyn Woods said.

Woods said on Thursday the purpose using a drone is “a less intrusive way of inspecting the lines. Instead of having a big helicopter hovering over the lines, which generates more noise, the drone is smaller, and we can inspect them without causing as much of a disruption.”

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