“We are moving into a future where these drones will fly even across the country,” McKenna says. “But the long-term future of this software is that it will fly people around.”
With the UK’s National Grid, which powers the country’s energy supply, the relationship has been more concrete after the organization committed funds to accelerate the development of Sees.ai’s technology. The first goal of the partnership is to prove that the system can be used to better maintain the network’s 21,900 steel pylons.
The network needs constant adjustment to remain reliable, and regular inspections are important. National Grid boasts 99.99 percent reliability: something it wants to improve by locating critical issues long before interruptions occur. In Britain’s wet climate, there is a high risk of corrosion, which is difficult to stop once it has started. Pylons need to be replaced once the rust has affected their structural integrity, so early detection saves costs in the long run.
National Grid spends around £ 16 million each year painting its pylons, and it has expected a cost of £ 35 million over the next five years to replace corroded steel. Taking into account the high cost of research and development, Sees.ai’s drone system is not necessarily cheaper than other inspection methods, but National Grid expects that it will enable more frequent and timely data capture, which in turn will save costs through more targeted asset replacement. If the trials are successful, National Grid expects savings of over £ 1 million for UK consumers in 2031.
But until cost-effective drones are deployed on a large scale, the only option is to use helicopters. A helicopter can inspect 16 pylons every hour at a cost of £ 2,000 an hour, but flying with a VLOS drone is not much better because it is cumbersome and slow with the pilot below. On a good day, VLOS drone teams cannot inspect more than 10 pylons. “It’s the human element in it that’s causing the problems,” said Mark Simmons, National Grid’s condition monitoring chief.
Sees.ai is not alone in tackling this problem, but the systems that many other companies rely on use GPS and compass for positioning. The problem is that these technologies are vulnerable to failure, especially when they are close to steel or strong electromagnetic fields that occur around high voltage power lines. Relying on already existing data can also be uncertain because the world is constantly changing.
According to David Benowitz, head of research at the research platform Drone Analyst, GPS technology is also not always accurate, especially when used for measuring altitudes or in land areas with poor satellite coverage. Because there will always be that “bubble of doubt,” he says, there is a higher risk of collisions in busy airspace. With more vulnerability comes more risk.
Thus, the only way to roll out these technologies is to limit the risk in other ways, such as flying simpler flights further away from potential collisions. But with each constraint imposed, “the applicability and scalability of the solution decreases,” Benowitz says. If we are to replace manned helicopters, we need to develop a solution that “does not have these limitations” that can safely perform surveys and detailed inspections of assets across the majority of the network, not just remote sections.
For this to happen, there must be more reliable and robust technologies: Each operating system must have multiple layers of security. “In order for us to fly close enough to the pylons to obtain the best data, we need more intelligence than GPS,” says Hjamlmarsson. But there must also be changes among regulatory bodies such as the FAA and CAA to make room for these more advanced systems to be properly developed and tested so that they can ever be proven to be safe. “That’s the scenario with chicken or eggs,” Benowitz says. “These systems are not bleeding, so there is no problem rolling them out in scale and in price, but the rules need to be updated.”