In July 2016, a team of industry experts stood next to a 345-kV line in Missouri, U.S., ready to conduct tests for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights with an unmanned aerial system (UAS). The objective was to test an aerial light detection and ranging (LiDAR) payload and then analyze the data for use in vegetation management of the line.

Increasing penetration of UAS in consumer and industry markets has raised the question of how electric utilities can benefit from autonomous flight. LiDAR-enabled UAS have the potential to facilitate utility vegetation management through the perpetual refresh of dimensional information. This refresh not only enables regulatory compliance, but also may facilitate a paradigm shift in utility vegetation management operations toward quantitative and data-driven programs that will drive safety and reliability benefits. Clear opportunities also exist to generate operational efficiencies through effective contractor procurement and auditing, accurate work orders, digital workflows and others.

Based in Missouri, Empire District Electric Co. has a perpetual and statutory need to maintain vegetation clearances on its transmission and distribution assets. Historical approaches for examining electrical clearances between conductors and vegetation have relied on visual ground and aerial patrols, which have most recently included LiDAR.

The use of LiDAR on manned platforms addresses several issues with visual patrols by achieving repeatable dimensional measurements, a comprehensive scan of all possible threats and determination of conductor sag. However, the cost of manned LiDAR has typically been a barrier to application, particularly for smaller projects where a mobilization charge for aircraft positioning may be incurred. For this reason,
Empire decided to explore whether a UAS equipped with LiDAR would deliver a comprehensive analysis at a better cost of application.