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ORNL report details drone use best practices by electric utilities

Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have issued a report surveying best practices by electric utilities that use drones to inspect their transmission lines and other critical infrastructure.

The report, An Early Survey of Best Practices for the Use of Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) by the Electric Utility Industry, states that it “is intended to help professionalize the safe and proper operation of UAS work”. It can be used as a “simple stepping-off point to inform policymakers, utilities, regulators, and operators about safely using UAS for the electric utility industry going forward,” noted authors Richard Lusk, director of ORNL’s UAS Research Center (UASRC) and leader of the lab’s Data System Sciences and Engineering (DSSE) group, and William Monday, UASRC project manager and a member of the DSSE group.

“For many electric utility industry observers, it’s not a matter of whether UAS will be integrated into the operational landscape, but when,” the report said. “The prospect of obtaining an aerial view of transmission and distribution lines, towers, and poles without deploying a line crew is very attractive to many utilities” for worker safety, system reliability, data collection and storage, and savings in time and cost.

Topics covered in the report include Federal Aviation Administration regulations, flight planning, safety checklists, emergency procedures, and a discussion of how UAS standards and practices could be merged into existing aviation rules and guidelines.

“We’ve been getting widespread feedback on the report, all positive, from utilities, professional drone operators, and government entities” who see it as a first step in moving forward with a larger effort to standardize UAS operation, Lusk said. “There’s really nothing like it in the world right now.”

There’s really nothing like it in the world right now -Richard Lusk

Electric utilities have typically performed line inspections and maintenance, storm damage assessments, and vegetation management using line crews, manned aircraft, and third-party inspection service companies. Some utilities have already begun using UAS to collect data in remote areas and over long distances, the report said.

About 25 utilities, universities, and other public and private industry organizations furnished best practices and guidelines to the report, the authors noted.

The report takes a look at the types of sensor systems such as cameras and other imaging devices that utilities could use, allowable work environment and limitations, and references on how best to use the new tools in a safe and professional manner. Along with serving as a refresher for experienced pilots to fly UAS, the report’s guidelines “serve to act as an educational tool for new UAS pilots and those who wish to become pilots in the future,” the authors said.

The report can be found at this link.

ORNL’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Research Center leverages the lab’s science and engineering expertise to innovate subsystems technology for UAS and assist with their successful development and usage in partnership with the private sector.

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit —by Stephanie Seay