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Drones Are Doing More Utility Inspections — for Good Reason

Florida Power and Light is turning to unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, to inspect high-voltage power lines. It’s dangerous work for a human, but drones offer new perspective and less risk.

(TNS) — Buzzing like a mosquito against a cloudless blue sky, a helicopter-shaped basketball-sized drone hovers above power lines off Spruce Creek Road.

Its pilot, Florida Power & Light technology manager Eric Schwartz, stands below, nudging controls to guide the tiny craft within inches of the high-voltage wires and pole-mounted transformers before steering it smoothly to the ground.

It's a demonstration of a procedure that unfolds a dozen or more times daily in neighborhoods in Volusia and Flagler counties and statewide, Schwartz, director of FPL's drone program. It's technology that has streamlined the power company's maintenance and repair efforts, he said.

"Drones offer a huge advantage is assessing this equipment above me," said Schwartz, who showcased FPL's drone operation as part of National Drone Safety Awareness Week, an educational awareness campaign initiated by the FAA.

"A drone gives us the ability to see a 360-degree view from above," Schwartz said. "Our lines get a lot of damage from natural resources from above the lines, which you can't see from the ground."

In flight, drones move in close to take up to 10 pictures of power-line equipment, from every conceivable angle. The drones also record infrared images that alert crews to potential system problems before they disrupt service, Schwartz said.

In the aftermath of hurricanes, the drones enable crews to assess damage faster in hard-hit areas initially inaccessible to bucket trucks and traditional repair crews.

FPL's main drone model is the DJI Phantom 4 Pro, which comes equipped with a 20 megapixel camera. At roughly $2,000 it's one of the more affordable models on the market, Schwartz said.

"These drones are ones you can get off-the-shelf at Best Buy or Amazon," Schwartz said. "They're among the least expensive and the most technologically advanced."

In 2018, the power company assessed more than 4,000 miles of overhead power equipment using drones, Schwartz said. In 2019, so far, FPL has covered more than 12,000 miles, he said.

"On average, we do 10 to 20 drone flights a day, which cover an average of 5 to 10 miles, depending on the circuit," Schwartz said.

FPL contracts with 14 companies to provide commercially licensed drone pilots that are also internally trained and certified by the power company. A rotating crew of 60 pilots handles the typical workload, Schwartz said.

Pilots must file a flight plan with the FAA and must operate drones in a line-of-sight pattern that extends from '-mile to '-mile, generally operating from power pole to pole, Schwartz said.

FPL customers in areas where drone crews will be working are notified by automated phone messages that such work will begin in their neighborhoods within the next 10 days, Schwartz said. The company averages 20,000 to 60,000 calls a week, he said.

"We get a mixed reaction" from customers, "as you do with any type of new technology," Schwartz said. "We do get calls from customers who are concerned."

In response, the company works hard to make it apparent that the work is officially sanctioned by FPL.

Crews wear FPL contractor badges, orange reflective vests and helmets emblazoned with the company's logo. They travel in vehicles that also bear the company's insignia.

In addition, FPL conducted focus groups earlier this year to better understand customer concerns.

"We want to improve our messaging," Schwartz said. "We want customers to understand how this is beneficial to them."

©2019 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.