Commonwealth Edison Co. (ComEd), a unit of Chicago-based energy provider Exelon Corp., recently received Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval to operate unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to inspect lines.
The UAS will be used on a trial basis to inspect and assess conditions of ComEd’s transmission and distribution lines, as well as substations.
The aircraft, equipped with a camera that can provide video and still photos, will fly above power lines and substations to provide an in-depth look at the condition of the system. In the future, ComEd hopes to have an infrared camera mounted to identify hot spots on the lines.
Additionally, the technology may also be used following significant storms to assess damage, according to the utility.
The project is a joint effort with the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). IIT will initially provide a licensed pilot for the partnership and is evaluating a light, flexible cage around the UAS that may maximize battery usage and protect the aircraft. “From a research perspective, this will allow us to learn more about how robots perform in unstructured, outdoor environments,” says Matthew Spenko, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at IIT.
Although another utility has received permission to use UAS for research and training purposes, ComEd says it is the first in the nation to get approval to use UAS as part of its ongoing operations.
“This UAS technology will allow us to be more proactive in identifying problems before they interrupt power to our customers,” says Terence R. Donnelly, executive vice president and chief operating officer of ComEd, which provides service to approximately 3.8 million customers across northern Illinois (70% of the state’s population).
“Right now, we use helicopters to inspect transmission lines. This initial test will help us evaluate potential benefits of using UAS technology to supplement this work,” Donnelly explains.
ComEd says it is currently acquiring UAS and completing the necessary training of its pilots. The utility is looking to launch the technology in early summer and will work closely with municipalities before flying UAS in their areas.