NILES — The city’s use of drones has taken off this year and is set to be propelled further with the purchase of a $40,000 commercial-grade device.
The new tiny aircraft — about 10 pounds with four motors and 17-inch propellers — will be used to inspect wires, poles, substations and all aspects of the city’s electric utility system. Thermal and zoom imaging will help detect equipment defects that then can be fixed before they become a problem.
Costs associated with just a couple of power outages could equal the cost of the drone itself, some city officials said. Plus, there could be other savings, as well as improved worker safety, they said.
The city council approved the drone purchase Monday night. Utilities board members voted for it last week.
“Let’s hope that it increases the reliability of the system,” said utilities board chairman Adam Wilson.
“It seems frivolous and kind of like a toy,” council member Tim Skalla said, “but it’s very useful.”
Five city staff members who earned Federal Aviation Administration remote pilot licenses to operate a drone have been using consumer-grade drones since early this year as part of the city’s drone feasibility study.
Utilities manager Jeff Dunlap sees drones as the wave of the future. He said Niles is in a unique position to make use of them under FAA rules because of its class of airspace and having its own airport, issues that could hinder other municipalities.
“I think you’ll see an uptick,” said Dunlap about city utilities using drones. “The drones we now have, tomorrow everyone will have.”
The four consumer-grade drones have proved handy, and the city wants to take its program to the next level for the electric utility, which serves about 7,500 customers.
The city would not be interested in making this “level of investment” in a drone if it didn’t have the electric utility, City Administrator Ric Huff told the utilities board last week.
An infrared capability on the commercial-grade drone is seen as key.
Dunlap said the new drone, which will be purchased from Mishigami Group in Holland, Mich., would feature two cameras, a thermal camera on one side and a zoom camera with 180x magnification on the other. Images from the two then can be superimposed.
The technology should allow the electric utility to more easily perform its own inspection scans of seven substations and all parts of the system. Dunlap estimated the drone could result in about $26,000 in savings per year. Using the device also means more often keeping personnel on the ground and at a distance from “hot spots,” increasing worker safety, he said.
The thermal scanning feature could have been used this summer, Dunlap said, to head off the second of two back-to-back power outages. The blowout of an insulator possibly is what cracked another one nearby, which then failed and caused a second outage. A thermal image could have shown the crack.
“When we have an outage, we want to start thermal scanning either side of it,” Dunlap told the utilities board.
After a recent traffic accident, a drone was used to photograph a dozen utility poles in about 15 minutes, Dunlap said. Workers then were able to identify and fix a loose fastener and streetlight bracket.
Sending a worker up from a bucket truck once to repair a problem rather than sending a person up repeatedly to inspect 12 or more poles saves a lot of time and is safer, Dunlap said. Bucket truck inspection of the same dozen poles could have taken more than an hour, he said. Despite time savings anticipated with use of the drone, Dunlap said there are no plans to reduce personnel.
Staff have flown drones on about 60 assignments this year, including to take pictures for the city’s website and get images of the steep roof of the old Carnegie library, which needed fixing. One of the first missions, Dunlap said, was to photograph damage for National Weather Service investigators after a tornado blew through town on Feb. 28.
The city will continue to use a couple of its consumer-grade drones for training and photography, he said. The commercial-grade drone will be used for the electric utility, and possibly for search and rescue efforts if needed.
Huff recalled a local incident in which more than 30 employees spent two days searching for a patient who had walked away from an Alzheimer’s unit.
“This thing can be programmed to fly a grid with thermal imaging,” he said. “We probably could have done it in 20 minutes.”
Jim Weeks, executive director of the Michigan Municipal Electric Association, said he wasn’t aware of drone use among the group’s 40 members, but he’s planning to take a survey.
Weeks said drones often are used in the power industry to help manage trees near lines — identifying where they’re too close so crews know where to cut.
Nearby Mishawaka has a municipal electric utility, which serves just fewer than 28,000 customers, but does not own a drone or hire drone services to manage its system, said manager Rick Springman.
Springman said he has no immediate plans to pursue using drone technology, but is keeping his “ears open” as the industry develops.