Hawaiian Electric implements drones to improve service, emergency response

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Hawaiian Electric Companies is taking to the skies, using technology to help with its field work.

The utility is adding Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), or drones, to its fleet. The devices were unveiled Thursday.

Officials say they’ll be used in various scenarios, including emergency response as they can be deployed quickly to obtain a snapshot of system conditions, which is vital to restoring power after storms, wild fires or other disasters.

Unmanned aircraft can also be used to inspect and repair or replace equipment, addressing potential problems before they occur, especially in hard-to-reach places.

Officials say inspections of poles, towers and power lines, especially in remote areas, often involve line crews climbing once to inspect and again to make repairs. A small, maneuverable unmanned aircraft allows them to see the tops of poles and cross arms or the sides of power plant stacks where damage is hard to spot from the ground.

“It may be these poles that are on public streets and whatnot, but the majority of our work is going to be around the facilities that are a bit more remote, like our transmission structures way up in the hills, way up in the mountains,” said Colton Ching, Hawaiian Electric vice president for energy delivery.

They can also help identify albizia tree infestations near power lines that can cause service outages, particularly in storms.

Hawaiian Electric stresses that the drones will be operated with “the highest regard for the safety of the public and our crews.” Officials say the UAS program is in full compliance with all Federal Aviation Administration rules and has developed safety, training and operating procedures.

As for privacy, we asked HECO if the drones would be used near homes and we’re told they won’t due to FAA regulations. Instead, they’ll be used in remote areas. We also learned the company is notifying landowners in those remote areas of their plans as a courtesy.

“We also understand some may have concerns about privacy. By complying with federal rules and our own strict operating standards, we can assure people we will respect that privacy in how we collect and use information gathered,” Ching said. “Under the rules by which we have to abide by, we actually aren’t allowed to (fly in residential areas), so we have a very restricted environment for which we can fly.”

“Under the regulations, it’s 400 feet and below unless you have special permission, so that’s what we’re utilizing right now,” said Teena Deering, UAS consultant for HECO.

The Hawaiian Electric Companies have unmanned aircraft in various sizes. Three weigh less than 7.5 pounds and can fly for approximately 15 minutes on a charge to provide state-of-the-art video and photography. Two are under a pound and can be quickly deployed and easily maneuverable in high winds. Cameras attached to the drones will be able to take photos and videos and even use infrared heat technology in some cases.

HECO said the drones are also cost-effective.

“As you can imagine, renting a helicopter and a qualified pilot versus a UAV (unmanned aircraft vehicle) is a lot more expensive so we hope to save some costs there,” Ching said.

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