Eyes in the sky

Drones give FirstEnergy a quick and easy look at plants

Until recently, John Anna and his crew of engineers climbed on temporary scaffolding as high as 100 feet to check expansion joints at FirstEnergy Corp.’s natural gas-fired power plant in Springdale. From start to finish, the annual inspection took nearly an entire day.

Now, Mr. Anna, the plant’s manager of advanced maintenance practices, sits down at a conference table and studies video captured earlier by a camera affixed to a 2.5-pound drone.

“It’s essentially the same picture,” he said. The giant building that houses the heat recovery generator and cooler has five expansion joints, which are springy mechanisms that provide some cushion to exterior duct work. The building tends to expand and contract rapidly.

As federal aviation regulators work to come up with national rules governing the use of drones for recreational and commercial purposes, electric utilities have officially entered the fray. Given the dangers, time and expense with overseeing some aspects of their operations, more utilities are considering drones to survey and inspect infrastructure.

For about a year, FirstEnergy, the Akron, Ohio-based owner of four power stations in southwestern Pennsylvania, has been using drones to perform routine inspections at its generating plants. Both Mr. Anna and Dave Belski, senior generation specialist at FirstEnergy, first flew the unmanned craft inside to inspect emissions control equipment.

“It takes a little bit of practice,” Mr. Belski said with a laugh, adding that he never expected that his maintenance duties would include remotely flying an aircraft.

Further, FirstEnergy is preparing to file for a Section 333 exemption — a license that the Federal Aviation Administration requires for outdoor commercial flights — in an approval process that could takes six to nine months. For now, the company contracts with licensed operators.

Though other utilities, including North Carolina-based Duke Energy and the New York Power Authority, are reportedly interested in using unmanned aircraft, adoption has been slow due to the uncertain regulations.

FirstEnergy’s foray would mark the first local power company to experiment. Spokespeople from West Penn Power and Duquesne Light, both of which own distribution power lines and not power plants, said drones don’t make sense. 

“Since a drone can only be flown when within sight of the operator, this method would not substantially benefit Duquesne Light operations at this time,” said Ashlee Yingling, spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh utility.

Malfunctions can happen

During a recent demonstration of a drone inspection at the Springdale plant — an inspection the company performed a few days earlier — Theiss UAV Solutions of Salem, Ohio, provided piloting services. While briefing reporters before the flight, Shawn Theiss, the company’s general manager and founder, said the technology is ideal for electric utilities but complicated considering the fast-changing rules.

“It really behooves companies like FirstEnergy to align themselves with ... a company that does this on a daily basis” and closely follows aviation rules, Mr. Theiss said. He also acknowledged that while drones pose little safety risk to those on the ground, malfunctions can happen.

“This is basically a flying computer; it’s technology. It’s never a question of if it’s going to have an issue, it’s a question of when,” he said. “That’s part of the nature of the beast.”

During the demonstration, Ric Musselman, also from Theiss UAV Solutions, piloted the drone slowly upward. Then Mr. Musselman guided the craft within 10 to 15 feet of each expansion joint and aimed the camera.

As the drone descended to a clean landing right where it started in the matter of minutes, Mr. Anna commented, “That would have been about six hours” of work.

Using a drone to inspect the expansion joints amounted to about one-third the cost of conducting the inspection the traditional way, which would have been about $10,000 to $12,000, said company spokeswoman Stephanie Walton.

Back in a conference room at the plant, Mr. Musselman played the drone’s video on a projector screen while Mr. Anna analyzed it.

“These are some very excellent shots,” Mr. Anna said, pointing out some minor rust but no major flaws. The camera is powerful enough to pick up the individual threads of each bolt in an expansion joint — from 15 feet away.

Showing video from the actual inspection days before, Mr. Musselman explained that the craft was briefly caught in a gust of wind and was pulled toward the pipes.

“If I were to hit it, we’d probably be OK,” he said. “And, if not, I don’t have lives at risk. We’ve got a replaceable machine, where the alternative is a guy strapped to a bucket that’s up there. ... So we obviously believe our solution is safer and better.”

Daniel Moore: dmoore@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.

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