University, utility collaborate to develop UAS inspection team

By Patrick C. Miller | December 21, 2016

Kansas State University's Polytechnic Campus and Westar Energy—a Kansas-based electric utility—are collaborating to integrate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the company’s services.

Located in Salina, KSU Polytechnic's unmanned aircraft systems program is working with Westar Energy on innovative inspection and maintenance methodologies using drone technology to increase reliability for customers, improve employee safety and reduce costs.

The partnership between the university and the utility dates back to 2013 when work began to establish an in-house UAS team at Westar Energy, as well as redefine inspection and maintenance techniques using unmanned aircraft for transmission lines, power plant boilers and electrical substations.

"The opportunity to assist Westar Energy in building an organic UAS program from the ground up has been tremendously rewarding for us,” said Kurt Carraway, executive director of the UAS program at KSU Polytechnic. “We get to learn about the power industry while helping Westar Energy provide first-class service to its valuable customer base.”

Westar Energy has implemented this technology in the day-to-day inspection of thousands of miles of transmission lines and utility towers that run across Kansas. UAS platforms capture imagery of the structures to identify needed replacements and inspect completed repairs.

Before the use of drones, the standard procedure for power companies was to have employees either use binoculars or ride lifts to examine the power lines and towers, which can be dangerous. Westar Energy now has a team that’s completed multirotor and fixed-wing drone training at KSU Polytechnic and leads the power company's internal UAS division.

"Our UAS program saves money for customers by making our operations more efficient and our work safer. It also makes our service more reliable," said Jason Klenklen, supervisor of transmission maintenance for Westar Energy. "We can use UAS or drones to identify struggling equipment before it causes an outage. Drones also make it safer and faster to inspect lines in difficult-to-reach areas when crews are locating the cause of a power outage."

KSU Polytechnic and Westar Energy are also exploring the use of UAS technology for the 3-D mapping of substations and inspections of power plant boilers. The university has assisted Westar Energy with developing and testing protocols, providing additional flight instruction and creating operational guides for these new areas with UAS technology.

Using photogrammetry, Westar Energy generates authentic images, 3-D maps and drawings for accurate measurement of substations. This enables maintenance in a specific area to be planned in advance. The utility’s employees are trained to set up an autonomous flight plan, which is necessary for the UAS camera to take photos based on either time or distance, as well as how to execute the mission to ensure quality data.