Michigan utility using UAS for infrastructure inspections

By Patrick C. Miller | June 25, 2015

Consumers Energy is the first utility in Michigan and the fourth in the U.S. to receive approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to use unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to inspect wind turbines, power poles, transformers and other equipment.

This week, the utility—headquartered in Jackson, Michigan—launched a DJI S1000 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to inspect an electric substation in Jackson County to help determine whether the technology can improve how Consumers Energy serves its customers.

“Twice a year, we use a helicopter to inspect high-voltage power lines,” said Mary Palkovich, Consumers Energy vice president of energy delivery. “Using a UAV in place of a helicopter could tremendously reduce fuel use and emissions, and our neighbors would experience a noise reduction in their environment.”

According to Andrew Bordine, the utility’s director for grid modernization, the company is also considering other long-term plans to employ UAS in its operations—ranging from inspections of transmission lines over dozens of miles with a fixed-wing UAV to using small UAVs that employees can take into the field to view structures in hard-to-reach areas,

The FAA gave Consumers Energy approval to use the UAV in assessing its above-ground facilities and equipment in three-county area. The company said UAS technology could result in quicker service restoration from storm damage and reduce the cost and carbon footprint associated with assessment work and power line inspections.

“This summer is the initial stage for us,” Bordine said. “We’ve got our FAA exemption and we’ve got six sites in Michigan where we’re looking to potentially do our testing. It’s really exciting because it’s something new for us. Being the first utility in Michigan to have access to it (UAS) and start testing it is pretty exciting.”

“We are always looking for ways to innovate and provide Michigan with safe, affordable, reliable, and environmentally sustainable energy,” Palkovich said. “We’re in the process of using UAV technology on a limited basis and analyzing if it will help improve energy service delivery.”

Participating in Consumer Energy’s launch event was U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, who serves on the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which oversees the FAA.

“I applaud Consumers Energy for seizing the opportunity to explore innovative and efficient ways to serve Michigan residents,” Peters said. “In the senate, I am working with my colleagues to ensure more Michigan businesses can take advantage of the benefits of UAV’s so we can integrate these technologies into our airspace in a safe manner.”


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