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Alabama Power team wins industry award for drone study

Restoring power quickly and safely to customers is Alabama Power’s No. 1 priority after a storm or disaster. The company is continuously researching ways to improve restoration times and methods. One group recently partnered with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) to study the values and limitations of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) – or drones – in storm response.

An Alabama Power team operates a drone or unmanned aerial system. (file)

The Alabama Power team, led by Distribution Engineering Services Manager Bobby Hawthorne, had been working on incorporating UAS into storm damage response for a few years when it decided to partner with EPRI, which had been working on similar issues. Engineer Bob Cheney, Power Delivery Specialist Wayne Hodges and Southern Company Services Engineer Glenn Wilson also worked on the resulting project, which recently won an EPRI Tech Transfer Award for Power Delivery and Utilization.

“Alabama Power has been leading the industry in UAS use cases because of the knowledge and leadership of our employees,” said Power Delivery Technical Services General Manager Pam Boyd. “I am proud of this team for their work that will allow us to restore power to customers more safely and efficiently.”

The project had three stages. The first stage evaluated vendors in a training environment with simulated damage. Then, the team explored drone approaches to inspect actual distribution circuits in the field. Finally, Alabama Power used UAS after a real storm that affected the same circuit used during testing.

Alabama Power and EPRI determined that using UAS in storm response can be up to four times faster than traditional ground-based inspections. During the study, the team received special permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly the drones beyond the employees’ line of sight to improve their research.

The team received its EPRI award in a virtual ceremony in April.

EPRI conducts research, development and demonstration projects, focusing on electricity generation, delivery and use in collaboration with the electricity sector, its stakeholders and others to make electric power safer and more reliable, affordable and environmentally responsible. Its leadership, industry expertise and collaborative value help the electricity sector identify issues, technology gaps and broader needs that can be addressed through research and development programs for the benefit of society.