Illinois Utility Uses Drones in Field Inspections

August 24, 2017

Ameren Illinois supplies gas and electric power to a 43,700-square mile area of midstate Illinois near Urbana is making use of specially outfitted UAVs to detect power outages, inspect transmission facilities. damage surveillance and plan for future construction projects.

Ameren has trained 18 drone pilots and invested in 36 drones, each unit costing about $3,000.

Kyle Maxwell, Ameren's superintendent of electrical operations and one of the licensed drone pilots said during a recent demonstration event in Urbana that using UAVs cuts hours off of inspection work in hard to access areas.

"We've used them in several instances like up in LaSalle, where they've been used for pole-inspection work," Maxwell said. "Beardstown was a great example where we used it in an inaccessible area in a swamp. Normally we'd put guys on the ground to walk it, but this was a real swamp so we would have had to get a boat in there to access it. Instead we used the drone, which took about five to 10 minutes to go out there to find our problem. Typically it would have taken four to six hours to get a boat in there and patrol the line."

Ameren Illinois' electric initiatives manager, Riley Adams, notes that using drones dramatically decreases the chances of linemen being injured by downed wires or environmental hazards in energized zones. Instead, the drones locate and evaluate damaged equipment. With videos sent back by the UAVs, the worker can remotely inspect the area in detail without encountering the hazards. Evaluation of damage to a transmission like can be completed faster and solutions to the problem can be started sooner. Workers stay safe and customer power is restored more quickly.

Currently, 1.2 million customers get their electric power from Ameren and 816,000 get natural gas from the company. The utility hopes to have its drone fitted with technology that will allow them to detect natural gas leaks and/or pinpoint 'hot switches' at electric substations.

Ameren's pilots are trained at the aeronautical school at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and meet all FAA requirements. In house training assures Ameran drone operators adhere to all state and federal regulations, which protects the privacy of the general public and the company's employees.

The utility's goal is to have at least one engineer or construction supervisor and drone at each of the company's 45 operating centers, available around the clock.