ULC Robotics, PSEG-LI send in the drones

Line item: Unmanned aerial vehicles piloted by ULC Robotics engineers are helping PSEG-LI monitor transmission lines and other equipment.

Look, up in the sky – and you just might see a fleet of flying robots checking out PSEG Long Island’s power lines.

The Uniondale-based utility has deepened its ongoing relationship with Hauppauge-based ULC Robotics, calling in ULC-operated UAVs to inspect PSEG-LI power lines and equipment.

The drones are 4.5 feet wide and weigh about 25 pounds each, and while on PSEG-LI duty are operated by licensed UAV pilots and engineers employed by ULC Robotics, via a “commercial-grade command and control system,” according to a PSEG-LI statement.

The first drone missions under the expanded collaboration – the utility and ULC Robotics actually launched their ambitious pilot program in 2016 – involve assessments of a PSEG-LI substation and right-of-way, as well as other “segments of our transmission and distribution system,” according to PSEG-LI Vice President John O’Connell, who heads up the utility’s transmission and distribution operations.

“Compared to using helicopters or ground-based observations, UAVs give us better data on the electric system,” O’Connell said this week, adding such innovations “directly improve system reliability and employee safety.”

There are more missions to come. In addition to routine line inspections and flybys of difficult-to-access infrastructure, PSEG-LI – a subsidiary of New Jersey-based Public Service Enterprise Group Inc. operating the Long Island Power Authority‘s transmission and distribution system under a 12-year contract – is planning to use the drones before and after storms and other emergencies to both batten down the regional power system and better coordinate emergency-response efforts, including smarter deployments of damage-repair crews.

Thomas Barracca: Let there be lights.

That’s a key benefit of the expanded UAV program, according to O’Connell, who noted that “storms appear to be happening more frequently in our region and getting more severe”  a real threat to PSEG-LI’s 9,000-miles-plus of overhead transmission lines.

“This enhanced aerial data is going to help us further harden our system before major storms and assist with emergency response after storms,” the vice president said. “This will allow us to better utilize our resources and more rapidly restore customers’ power.”

ULC Robotics, a circa-2001 energy research-and-development firm, has made a name for itself in domestic and European markets primarily as a manufacturer of automatons designed to inspect and repair natural-gas pipelines.

Its foray into robotic flight shot skyward in 2016, when the Hauppauge company earned Federal Aviation Administration authorization to operate commercial UAVs below 400 feet in altitude, anywhere in U.S. airspace.

ULC Robotics Business Development Manager Thomas Barracca, a former PSEG-LI vegetation-management manager who was hired by the Hauppauge firm in 2016 to head ULC Robotics’ Aerial Services division, called the expanded drone use “a real game changer” for PSEG-LI and other utilities.

“Whether we’re helping to identify an outage waiting to happen or expediting post-storm electric-service restoration, our pilots and engineers are helping PSEG Long Island keep the lights on,” Barracca said in a statement.

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