AUSTIN (KXAN) — Routine maintenance on Austin’s transmission towers can be costly, time-consuming and even dangerous for workers. Now, Austin Energy is hoping specialized unmanned aerial vehicles — also known as drones — can change that.
The utility is working with the IC² Institute Global Commercialization Group at the University of Texas at Austin, which promotes the growth and development of innovative, technology-based businesses in a variety of regions worldwide. IC² is working with a company based in India that has developed the software for the drone in order to find and identify defects on the towers. Researchers say the software works like facial recognition or image-pattern recognition.
“With this technology, you can take thousands of pictures along the entire transmission network, feed them into the computer and get spit out exactly where the defects are, the damages, the location, etc.,” said James Vance, Program Manager with IC².
Once the picture is snapped, it produces an algorithm. Researchers then compare those images to images of new transmission equipment. The algorithm automatically identifies damaged tower components, without human intervention.
Austin Energy officials say using the drones could help eliminate using expensive aircraft and save lineman from having to climb towers to check for repairs.
“Because of the software and the drones capability of getting in closer and at different angles than even a helicopter can do we are going to be able to detect a lot more things and spot problems faster and fix them faster,” said Carlos Cordova with Austin Energy.
Right now, crews have to use binoculars to inspect 600 miles of transmission lines throughout Austin. It takes about 20-30 minutes to check each one, but the drone can snap pictures on all sides of the tower in four minutes. It won’t eliminate jobs. Austin Energy says it will just make them more efficient.
“It doesn’t mean these patrollers have to be replaced, people can learn news skills, learn how to fly drones, learn how to interpret the data,” Cordova said.
This is just the research stage — if Austin Energy is happy with the results, it could purchase the software when it goes on the commercial market early next year. The software also requires skilled drone pilots licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration who are able to successfully navigate the electromagnetic fields from the transmission lines.
Austin Energy already uses drones, mainly when they have to cross the Colorado River after a bad storm to look for damage, but those just take still pictures.
Click here for more information on the IC² Institute.