Protecting the grid with drones

The flight of this small drone, humming around these high voltage power lines in North Austin was no stunt, but a test. The activity Thursday morning along a utility easement near Braker Lane caught the attention of Bill Thaberge. The former aeronautical engineer said he once worked on supersonic aircraft and was amused to see a robot now above his neighborhood.

"The only thing I wonder about is, if there's ten trillion drones flying everywhere, and kids are flying them, what’s going to happen when they start falling down,” said Thaberge.

The flight was done to offer managers with Austin Energy a demonstration of a potentially new way to protect the electrical grid. The test wasn't about the drone but the on aboard camera system. "It’s going to save utilities in the future lots of time, lots of money and increase safety as well,” said AE Spokesperson Carlos Cordova.

A computer program analyzes video images from the drone.

Defects, which can be hard to spot from the ground, can be quickly found from the air and then repaired. The concept is similar to facial recognition technology used by airports. The drone camera program is being promoted by the U.T. Austin  IC² Institute’s Global Commercialization Group.

"You can take thousands of pictures along the entire transmission network, feed them into the computer and get spit out exactly where the defects are, the damages, and the location,” said James Vance with the U.T. IC2 Institute.

The U.T. IC2 Institute program is co-sponsored by Lockheed and the department of science in India.  The company with the drone camera program is one of 8 gold medal winners.

As impressive as this new technology may be, the carbon based life form that came up with the idea may be just as impressive. Swati  Tiwari  is from India and got into the utility 25 years ago. She broke through traditional social barriers in her country and is now the CEO of her own company, Arcturus.

She offered this advice to young woman entering the business world.

"Just keep on doing the hard work. And that will make you succeed. When I joined the power industry, I looked like an animal in a zoo, but now it’s very frequent and a lot of girls, and ladies, are entering our ( industry) the only thing is hard work and dedication, and passion to do something,” said Tiwari.
Austin Energy has not committed to buying the drone camera program just yet.

Officials say if they want the technology, they will first have to put out a request for bid.