If you see an object floating high above our electric lines, natural gas pipelines, wind turbines, solar gardens or hydroelectric plants that you can’t immediately identify, don’t worry.

Chances are relatively good that it’s just part of our daily mission to bring reliable, affordable and safe service to our customers. It hasn’t always been this convenient to inspect these places, but now we have fleet of about two dozen drones that help us with improved reliability and cost savings.

Power Line Inspections

Drones are most often used to inspect our electric lines. We inspect about 4,000 of these lines around the state with our helicopter crew, but there are about 400 miles of lines they can’t get to for a variety of reasons, including thick brush and helicopters not being allowed in the area.

This is where the drones come in to play. Our 30 licensed drone operators can use one of our specialized drones to take a birds-eye view video and photos of our power lines to determine if there are any downed wires or damage to poles including cross arms, insulators and cutout switches.

“Drones can help us survey the area efficiently and safely, especially during storms in some tough-to-reach places,” said Matt Henry, who works in the Grid Modernization Department and currently supports our drone program. “And we also use it as a tool to help identify what areas might be in need of tree trimming maintenance to protect our lines.”

Fallen trees or broken limbs are a leading cause of outages in Michigan. That’s why we are investing more than $500 million over the next five years to make sure our customers have reliable service by keeping our distribution lines clear. 

“In the past it could’ve taken us days to locate an issue with employees having to walk through some rough terrain at times,” Henry said. “Now we can safely identify the issue in minutes and in top priority situations have the crew immediately come out and fix it.”

Drones are also being used to proactively identify signs of equipment damage on devices, such as Automatic Transfer Reclosers (ATRs).

Our Renewables – Solar and Wind

A decade ago at the first two of our now four wind parks, an engineer would spend a good part of the day inspecting a turbine and its blades, which are 100 to 200 feet in length. This was accomplished through long-range photography.

“It wasn’t the easiest job back then – it’s like night and day when it comes to our ability to inspect our wind turbines now versus a decade ago,” said Henry. “With a drone, we get many more details now on what a particular issue might be.”

Our wind farms continue to generate clean, renewable energy for homes and businesses while supporting communities across Michigan. They are also a key piece of our Clean Energy Plan to protect the environment.

We currently have three solar gardens in Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and most recently in Cadillac. The three locations have been pivotal in helping us promote a clean energy future.

Drones have also played a key role in making sure photovoltaic modules are functioning properly. In the past, engineers would have to carefully inspect each panel, which could take hours. They would look for defects like hail damage, electrical shorting and module failures using infrared thermography.

Now a 10-minute or so drone trip around a solar garden can help identify any issues that need to be fixed.

“This has greatly cut down on the time it takes our engineers to identify issues – and in addition, we find things which could not be detected by the human eye,” Henry said. “They find issues in relatively short order, then a renewables specialist can fix or swap out a panel if necessary. It’s a seamless process that takes only minutes instead of hours or days.”

Pipelines Benefit from Inspection

Henry said the drones have also been put to good use in natural gas pipeline projects, including the completed Saginaw Trail Pipeline.

It was built to modernize the natural gas infrastructure in Saginaw, Genesee and Oakland counties. The work is part of  our  Natural Gas Delivery Plan, a 10-year road map to a system that is even more safe, reliable, affordable and clean.

“We can do flights over gas pipeline when necessary,” said Henry, adding they look for things along the path of the pipeline, including knowing the location of electric lines, natural streams and trees. “I flew the Saginaw Trail Pipeline and it was cool to see the before and after project lifecycle from pre-dig, install, weld and bury.”

After the pipe is in the ground, we take steps to maintain the landscape.

“That’s part of our mission to always leave it better than we found it,” Henry said.

Inspecting Our Hydros

Our 13 hydros around Michigan also need repairs and a safe, efficient way to inspect them is with drones.

“We know that people love our hydros and use them for various recreational activities,” said Henry. “That’s why from time to time we use our drones to inspect all 13. Sometimes the most minor issues can be detected and stop a major problem from happening. With these drones it’s all about helping us with maintaining our various resources around the state, including our hydros.”

Each year, we have seen an increase in drone activity to help us provide customers with the reliable, safe and affordable service they expect from us, Henry said.

“The capability of our drones has improved vastly over the last 10 to 15 years. I am excited to see how they will evolve over the next 10 to 15 years. They are a versatile tool that will be a huge part of our reliability future.”

Check out the related news story from WOOD TV: Consumers looks to drones to help prevent power outages