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Adoption of Drones in the Electric Utility Industry

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) recently published “An Early Survey of Best Practices for the Use of Small Unmanned Aerial Systems by the Electric Utility Industry.” Known as sUAS, and interchangeable with the terms drones and Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), sUAS have the potential to conduct efficient and safe electric infrastructure inspections, effectively detect problems with electric equipment, access equipment in difficult terrain, and provide direct support for electric utility vegetation management. ORNL’s survey of best practices is focused on safety and mitigating risk. It serves to inform electric utilities’ strategy and operations in the areas of mission planning and execution, contracting for sUAS services, and development of in-house capability.

Key Details

  • Last August, the FAA established rules (part 107) for commercial use of sUAS, providing utilities with a new tool in the maintenance of their electric infrastructure and building of future capability
    • sUAS have the potential to conduct operations traditionally completed by manned aircraft with greater safety and at approximately one-tenth of the cost
    • Public power utilities, including Austin Energy, Nashville Electric Service, Ontario Power Generation, and Sacramento Municipal Utility District, are investigating how to best utilize sUAS in operations
    • Investor-owned utilities, including Duke Energy, Exelon, National Grid, Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern Company, and Xcel Energy, have already tested sUAS for inspecting T&D lines
  • ORNL’s best practices are intended to support safe sUAS practices, providing for public safety, national grid security, and awareness of regulatory compliance requirements
    • Poor mission planning and execution have led to incidents of sUAS contact with electric power lines, resulting in power outages and risks to public safety and the national grid
    • Lack of appreciation for safety and regulations covering use in populated areas resulted in injury to a bystander and jail time for a commercial aerial photographer filming a parade
  • Proper mission planning and execution can improve safety and reduce the risk of damage to a sUAS while increasing operations success
    • Some critical factors in mission planning include crew make-up, weather, sUAS systems capability, and type and size of electric infrastructure being inspected
    • Properly addressing sUAS equipment factors like airframe, battery and personnel safety, emergency procedures, and hazard avoidance procedures can minimize safety risks posed by a sUAS
  • Safety, cost, and mission requirements are some of the key considerations when assessing whether to contract for sUAS services or develop in-house capability
    • Trade-offs and cost considerations include insurance requirements, sUAS types and sensor requirements, sensor and data processing capabilities, and FAA authorizations to operate
    • Both contracting and development of in-house sUAS capabilities require, among other things, informed company policies


Drones are becoming more prevalent in electric utility operations. While drones have the potential to reduce operating costs, utilities face a significant number of considerations to ensure they have safe and compliant operations that also achieve desired operational and cost benefits. ORNL’s collection of best practices provides timely insight to assist utilities in identifying the key considerations when evaluating the use sUAS and their application for electric utility work.

Additional Information

Oak Ridge National Laboratory: An Early Survey of Best Practices for the Use of Small Unmanned Aerial Systems by the Electric Utility Industry

Federal Aviation Administration: Fact Sheet – Small Unmanned Aircraft Regulations (Part 107)

Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD): SMUD using drone technology to patrol high-voltage lines

Austin Energy: Austin Energy using drones to inspect transmission lines

Nashville Electric Service: Students Use Drones to Help NES Electric Crews

Ontario Power Generation: Inspectors zoom in for a closer look

This report is part of the Public Power Minute series. To view all featured Minutes, please click here.

Additional Contributing Authors: Sriram Krishnan

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