iPads and drones may help in power failures

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iPads and drones may help in power failures

A storm knocks out electric power? There's an app for that, and soon there may be a spy drone, too.

Facing more frequent storms that cripple electric distribution systems over big areas, utility companies are drafting iPads and military-style aerial surveillance robots to get the lights back on faster.

Much of their problem in restoring service quickly usually has to do with information and logistics. In the latest wave of power failures, on Thursday night and Friday morning, a line of extreme storms knocked out electricity to thousands in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey. In some places, damage was so extensive, and so many roads were blocked, that utilities had not even finished assessing the problem by midday Friday.

After the powerful storm known as a derecho struck on June 29, East Coast utilities were forced to bring in help from as far away as Ontario and Oklahoma, and had to determine quickly where to put the borrowed crews to work, even before the roads were passable. Then they had to deliver poles, transformers, wires, crossbars and other parts to the precise locations where they were needed.

A prototype app for the iPad, developed by the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit utility research consortium, is aimed at solving part of that problem. Here is how it works: The electric company preloads the iPad with data about the equipment in the field. With GPS, the device knows its location. A field worker can then point the device at a utility pole and quickly see an "augmented reality" view, showing precisely what kind of pole, crossbar, transformer and wire are present, and how the system is wired.

The technician selects the image of the parts that need replacing, and "click, click, it goes back to the loading dock," where workers begin loading trucks with what is needed for that spot, said Clark Gellings, a senior researcher at the institute.

It even has a "Star Wars" name: Field Force Data Visualization. The Field Force, though, refers to the workers, not to the subliminal energy field sensed by the Jedi.

The industry is also testing remote-controlled drones to help it quickly count downed poles, wires and transformers on streets that are still impassable because of fallen trees.

The technology has helped the military find the enemy around a corner or over the next hill. Applying it to a broken distribution system is "a no-brainer," said Matthew Olearczyk, a senior program manager at the Electric Power Research Institute.

His organization has been testing a drone at a test range operated by New Mexico State University, near Las Cruces. But it has been flying at 8,000 feet, probably much higher than needed; the solution is probably a much smaller drone that would fly at very low altitudes, Mr. Olearczyk said.

It is looking at the Hornet Maxi, a 25-pound helicopter that looks like a miniature of the real thing, sans pilot, or the Aeryon Scout, which has four rotor blades, one in each corner, and appears to have flown straight out of a science fiction movie. Other models look like toy airplanes and can be launched by a worker with a throw like a quarterback's. Some drones have a wingspan of a mere 18 inches.

Simple optical cameras would probably do the trick, Mr. Olearczyk said, although other sensors might be added.

Southern Company will try the drones first, in Alabama, he said.

But one problem is getting approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, which has been slow to approve the use of drones over populated areas; for one thing, they cannot see other aircraft and thus are more collision-prone.

Mr. Olearczyk suggests that a governor could declare a state of emergency, giving the utility the ability to conduct a flight of two or three hours to gather information that would also be useful to road crews.

© 2012, The New York Times News Service


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