Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Ameren Illinois takes to the skies with drone technology

DECATUR — With more than 40,000 square miles to cover, Ameren Illinois is seizing on increasingly popular drone technology that allows it to take to the skies and view the world from above. 

The company demonstrated the capabilities of one of its small, propeller-powered machines during a display Wednesday, showcasing its ability to take high-quality images in a variety of situations. Since the company first became interested in the unmanned aerial devices last year, they have become crucial to its mission to deliver power to its coverage map of 43,700 square miles, said Ron Pate, Ameren Illinois’ senior vice president of operations and technical services. 

“We started using them to help with our efficiency during storm restoration,” Pate said. “Now, we’re now using them even more because a drone can give us a dominant view of an area.”

In addition to enhancing its storm and emergency response efforts, Ameren also uses drones to inspect the infrastructure of electric and natural gas facilities, as well as survey the terrain of a potential location for new infrastructure.

The devices also help keep company employees safe by evaluating potentially dangerous situations and spotting hard-to-reach locations when out in the field, said Riley Adams, manager of electrical initiatives for Ameren. 

 “Drones are like a pair of binoculars, to an extent,” Adams said. “They're just more high-tech."

Ameren has 36 employees that have received the training and certification required by the Federal Aviation Administration to operate drones.

At least for now, there remain some limitations to the commercial operation of drones imposed by the FAA. Those include restrictions on flying the devices beyond the operator's line of sight and restrictions on nighttime use.

The FAA does not provide state-level information on how many commercial operations are using drones, a spokeswoman for the agency said.

Supervisor of Electrical Operations Kyle Maxwell said Ameren's drone pilots must first pass a two-day course offered by Southern Illinois University Carbondale before completing their training through a program offered by the company. 

"There's a lot of people out there that don't know how to operate a drone," Maxwell said. "There's much more to just un-boxing them and getting them set up."

Pate hopes to continue expanding Ameren's drone usage as the technology keeps improving over time, aiming to have at least one licensed drone operator at all of the company's operating centers in the near future. 

He also wants Ameren to invest in drones outfitted with infrared capabilities to help in low visibility situations. Since standard drones cost $3,000 each, Pate said it's not feasible to purchase the equipment at this time. However, that could change when less costly options become available.

"With drones, we're only just getting started," he said. 

Original article can be found here ➤

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