Duke Energy is Using Drones to Restore Power in Puerto Rico

UAV Pilot preparing drone to carry a power line

In a new one for the drone industry, Dolce and Gabbana used drones to showcase their new handbags down a runway at a resent fashion event. But hundreds of miles away in Puerto Rico, a power company is putting drones to a much more significant use.

Duke Energy, a utilities company helping with efforts to restore power in the hurricane and floods-ravaged US territory, is using drones to speed up those efforts.

The Drones have made a huge difference helping more homes get power faster. They have also drastically improved worker safety.

Duke Energy went to Puerto Rico in January when the local utility company was struggling to bring back power to thousands of homes. This was the first situation where they were able to properly deploy drones to reconnect power lines.

The drone operations were so successful that power restoration within one area went from 68% of customers to 94% within just a month.

Tough Terrain

Puerto Rico hilly areas
Tito Caraballo, Flickr

The biggest challenge for utilities working in Puerto Rico was how to reconnect power lines in remote areas. The dense vegetation and hilly terrain made it a huge challenge to send power lines across large areas.

There was an attempt to use Helicopters. In fact, helicopters were (and still are) helpful in restoring power in certain locations. But in hilly areas, they proved expensive and dangerous.

And even in normal conditions, using a helicopter to string power lines is still hazardous. In 2017, a pilot died in Indiana after his helicopter crashed as he was putting up power lines.

So Duke Energy ruled out using helicopters in hazardous terrain.

Another attempt involved using a brass projectile to carry a nylon cord over long distances. That proved ineffective. The projectile could not cover the long distances between hill peaks.

Using Drones

Battling dense forests, broken poles, mountain ranges and power lines buried under five months’ worth of overgrown vegetation after Hurricane Maria, our crews are finding faster and safer restoration success with the use of drones in Puerto Rico. Learn more about the first deployment of power restoration drones on the island: http://spr.ly/6181Du8Yc. #PoweringPR

Posted by Duke Energy on Thursday, February 15, 2018

Duke Energy already uses drones to inspect infrastructure such as power lines, solar panels and wind turbines.

So it was just a matter of tweaking the drones a bit to carry power lines.

Workers attach a lightweight nylon cord on the drone which transports it over the dense forests and mountainous terrain. An electromagnet, specially 3D printed for the task, allows the drone to drop its load at a precise spot.

The drone can cover over 1,200 feet and in case of anything, it’s easy to track its location. Previously, workers had to trek through the jungle to find fallen wires and equipment.

Drones are not only safer, they have also speeded up the work. Jacob Velky, the UAVs manager at the company says they were always busy helping pull cables over hills and thick vegetation.

“We were doing upwards of 3-4 pulls in a day. There was no shortage of work.”

Duke Energy is deploying the drones in other operations as well. They are handy for inspecting damaged infrastructure and knowing exactly where to send out teams of technicians.

“Being in the jungle, once the conductor is off and you just have a wooden pole out in the tress, it’s very difficult to see where the pole is,” Velky said. “So using the drone to do reconnaissance instead of somebody going out there and walking around trying to find it just minimized the amount of time that employees are off-road.”

The Future of Drone Commercialization

A lot of these stories (yes, even the Dolce and Gabbana one) are great for the drone industry. We are seeing more and more applications for drones, some fun and interesting but many useful and potentially lifesaving.

Drones are making operations that were before expensive and risky, doable at a relatively low cost and with increased safety.

It is without doubt that if it were not for Duke Energy’s drones, a lot of homes in Puerto Rico and especially those in remote areas would still be in the dark.