After Hurricane Harvey, Texas cooperatives were faced with the challenge of restoring power to areas that were plagued by flooding. Some took to boats while others took to all-terrain vehicles to cross the flooded areas. For a few utilities, taking to the sky was the best way to get the power back on.

Drones are no longer a birthday present for a teenager with a knack for technology. Drones are being used by major retailers, news organizations, the military, scientists, and more.

Electric utilities like Cherryland see drone technology as another tool in the reliability tool chest. Drones offer electric utilities new ways to improve outage response as well as infrastructure and right-of-way (ROW) maintenance.

According to Chris Vermeulen, Cherryland engineer and licensed commercial drone pilot, the benefit to having a drone available in the case of a major outage event like Hurricane Harvey is simple: “It allows you to have a look at what you’re dealing with.”

“By determining through drone video and pictures the severity of an outage, a co-op’s outage response can be more efficient,” says Vermeulen. “Co-ops can determine how many lineworkers and what kind of equipment they need before dispatching crews.”

Where drone implementation gets interesting is the potential to prevent outages before they occur using the latest in imaging technology.

A couple of the same Texas co-ops that used drones in response to Hurricane Harvey have also deployed drones to identify areas of their infrastructure and ROWs that need attention before an outage occurs.

These drones are affixed with Light Detection and Ranging, or LiDAR, scanners—an imaging technology used to create 3D models of electric infrastructure.

“After producing the initial 3D model, you update this model down the road and compare it against the previous scan,” explained Vermeulen. “That allows you to figure out whether trees need to be removed and if equipment needs to be repaired to prevent an outage.”

Cherryland also sees the potential of improving reliability by using drones. While Vermeulen and his coworkers study drone response procedures like those in Texas, Cherryland’s drone is being used to educate and train lineworkers. “Particularly for new lineworkers, it’s nice that we can get them familiar with our lines and equipment with drone pictures and video before they go up in a bucket,” said Vermeulen.

Drone technology has opened doors to how electric utilities think about outage response and infrastructure and ROW maintenance. Instead of sending a line crew to find damaged equipment or a tree crew to scan the lines for fallen trees, a utility can take to the skies and give their crews better information before they take to the field.