IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Virginia Utility to Expand Use of Drones in Power Line Inspections

Since the utility started using the drones full time in August 2015, in partnership with Virginia Tech, they discovered six critical issues with power lines in Hampton Roads, Va.

(TNS) — Dominion Virginia Power has been using unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, for 13 months to inspect Hampton Roads' power lines — a program the company plans to expand on the Peninsula soon.

Before Dominion started using the drones to take photos of the power lines, they had to fly helicopters or have crews climb up to the lines, said Steven Eisenrauch, Dominion's manager for electric transmission, forestry and line services.

Dominion started using the drones full time in August 2015, in partnership with Virginia Tech, said Eisenrauch. Since then, the drones discovered six critical issues with Hampton Roads power lines.

Drones can get different shots and angles for photos than what's possible with helicopters and crews, Eisenrauch said.

"There's also a safety piece there since you don't have to have someone in a manned aircraft and not as many folks climbing up the structures," said David A. Culler, CEO of Virginia Beach-based HAZON Solutions, Dominion's drone contractor.

Dominion Virginia Power and Virginia Beach-based HAZON Solutions have been conducting demonstrations of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones to help patrol electric transmission lines that cross Virginia.

In the first year, the drone flew 144 miles and inspected more than 1,200 structures, said Bonita Billingsley Harris, Dominion spokeswoman.

"We're always looking for new technologies for inspections," Eisenrauch said Monday during a drone media demonstration in Chesapeake. "We like to be very proactive."

For many lines, Dominion still uses crews and helicopters, but the drone program is expanding.

Dominion plans to begin using drones to inspect more than 20 additional lines in Hampton Roads this year and next, including three in Newport News, two in Hampton, two in Yorktown, one in Gloucester and one in Williamsburg/James City County.

The service has not yet been used in the Peninsula area, aside from Isle of Wight, said Eisenrauch.

So far, the drones don't provide much cost savings for Dominion, said Eisenrauch, but the company expects a significant cost savings if the Federal Aviation Administration loosens "line of sight" restrictions, which he hopes will happen within the next two to three years.

It's also difficult to get clearance for the drones to access all the region's power lines, especially near the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport and NASA Langley, Eisenrauch said.

"Our biggest issue so far has been access," Eisenrauch said. "Getting clearance can be hard."

Dominion plans to eventually expand the drone program across the state, Eisenrauch said. So far, it's mostly been used in central and southern Virginia, in more rural areas.

Helicopters are still used to inspect the 276-foot power lines across the James River, but drones may be used in the future, Billingsley Harris said.

Dominion's use of drones is part of a national trend toward more companies using the technology.

Dominion was the HAZON Solutions' first potential customers, said Culler, one of the two former Navy pilots who founded the company in July 2014.

Today the company provides drone services to many companies, including Norfolk Southern Corp., AT&T cell towers, Pennsylvania Power and Light and the Maryland Transportation Authority, Culler said.

The company is also getting ready to do some infrastructure inspections for coal facilities in Newport News, he said.

Most of HAZON's work includes using drones to take photos and videos to conduct inspections. Dominion also uses the drones to identify the spots on the lines that need repairs after storms.

"I'm expecting a phone call from Dominion Power for us to be on alert and do some post-storm assessments if (Hurricane Matthew) comes this way," Culler said.

©2016 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.