Drones help restore power in Jacksonville after Hurricane Irma

By Patrick C. Miller | September 13, 2017

Less than a month after unveiling a high-tech, drone-equipped pickup for power line inspections, Norway-based eSmart Systems is using its resources to help restore power to the residents of Jacksonville, Florida, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

Before anyone knew how the storm would impact Jacksonville, the wheels had been put in motion to deploy the eSmart Thundercloud mobile operations center and a team of drone operators with SkySkopes—a Grand Forks, North Dakota, UAS company—to the city. They have been working since Monday to identify damage and help safely guide repair crews as they restore power.

“We have benefited greatly from these services because there are areas we weren’t able to see,” said Geri Boyce, spokeswoman for the Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA). “This has helped us not only with power restoration, but also with the safety of our crews. We were able to see the damage before we put our crews in any danger.”

JEA is the eighth largest municipal utility in the country and the largest in Florida, providing electrical service to 455,000. At the height of the storm, 280,000 customers were without electric service. As of noon Wednesday, the number of customers without power was between 106,000 and 120,000.

Although there have been a few issues with logistics and communications, the use of UAS to assist with disaster recovery will likely become more common in the future.

Matt Dunlevy, SkySkopes president and CEO, noted that because the company’s UAS operators receive pilot training from the University of North Dakota School of Aerospace Sciences and are experienced in working with utilities, the operations in Florida have run smoothly.

“We’re just astounded with how well the eSmart Thundercloud truck is being demonstrated as a viable asset for hurricane relief and damage assessment,” Dunlevy said. “JEA is able to integrate the UAS operations into what is already a streamlined machine. It’s going to make the restoration of power to its clients that much faster.”

Two and a half years before Hurricane Irma came into existence, eSmart Systems had been working with The Energy Authority (TEA) based in Jacksonville to provide the organization with the analytical software it developed for inspecting electrical transmission lines.

After Hurricane Harvey struck Texas, Dunlevy suggested to Knut Gustavsen, eSmart Systems’ president for North American operations, that the two companies deploy resources to Jacksonville to assist TEA and JEA with storm recovery.

“We plug all the data SkySkopes gathers into our systems for analysis,” Gustavsen said. “The data is then provided to TEA and JEA. We are delivering drone services and surveillance for power restoration and safety.”

Boyce said that because JEA has 745 miles of transmission lines and more than 6,700 miles of distribution lines, the ability to deploy the eSmart mobile operations center and the SkySkopes drones has made an impact.

“This is helping us immensely,” she said. “We were able to get all of our damage assessments done within 24 hours after the storm left and it was safe to do so.”