Drones have become relatively commonplace for both recreational and commercial use. But even the commercial flyers are mainly used for taking pictures or creating maps of areas. They don’t do much in the area of heavy lifting, but that’s changing in Puerto Rico. Wired reports that Duke Energy, which has volunteers working to restore power in Puerto Rico, is making use of five drones to handle dangerous tasks that are normally handled by humans, such as finding downed or submerged power lines, or stringing new lines over difficult terrain.
Prior to the introduction of these unmanned drones, Duke’s workers would normally need to search for downed or submerged power lines in person. This could mean traversing through the island’s tropical forests and across ravines and gorges. Once they’ve manged to locate the downed lines, the works would reattach them using a gun to string the 1,000-foot gaps in between the different power lines. Given that these workers are on 13-day shifts from dawn until dusk, this can be difficult and sometimes dangerous work, which is why the drones are so helpful.
The drones can more easily find the downed power lines without risking injury, and then thread the new cords. Workers still need to attach the nylon conductor to that cord, but it’s much easier than doing all the work themselves.
Duke did not want to comment on the specifics of how much money the drones were saving, but were quick to point out that they make the work much safer for their workers.
“We are extremely excited about the technology’s ability to reduce risks that our employees encounter every day, such as working at heights, around energized equipment, and in confined spaces,” Duke’s Jacob Velky told Wired.
The drones Duke is using are commercial Zoe models supplied by AceCore Technologies, and they start at about $18,000. These models are capable of running for 40 minutes on a single charge and have a max payload of about 15 lbs., according to the product page. Two of the five that Duke has are equipped with cameras that are used to map terrain and scout for downed power lines. The three drones that actually handle the stringing of the lines don’t have any cameras or sensors. Linemen have to rely on radios to make sure that the lines have been stringed correctly.
Duke says that the company does expect to expand its use of drones to the continental U.S., so don’t be too surprised if you see one helping to repair a downed power line sometime soon.