Are satellites better than drones for utility network monitoring?

This is a question that many customers ask us. And, like all good questions, there’s no simple answer to that. 

Many power, gas and water utilities are reviewing their asset monitoring strategy in order to move from calendar-based inspections and O&M actions to risk and condition-based ones. In this journey, the digitalization of asset data is key. While in-situ sensors provide continuous, detailed data streams that allow faster responses when damages and faults occur, their cost doesn’t allow their deployment at scale. Moreover, they generally provide information on one or two specific network risks but struggle to provide information about external risks such as the vegetation, land motion, floods and human activities in the network corridor, which makes it hard for them to prevent future network faults before they happen.

This is where technologies like satellites and drones come into play. Satellites and drones give asset managers the possibility to scan the environment in and around the Right of Way to understand potential encroachments such as trees or new building works which usually cause around 60% of network faults. However, there are several differences between the capabilities of both, which make satellites and drones more complementary than alternative to one another.

In very simple terms, satellites are better when you need to quickly collect data, run analytics and prioritise risks across hundreds or thousands of km of utility networks at tens of centimetres of resolution. The different types of sensors allow satellites to be useful for different use cases: from prioritising vegetation management activities, to understanding where gas and water leaks are, to detecting new dangerous construction works in the RoW, land movements and floods, as well as showing the biodiversity of a territory. Satellites are effective at large scale and they don’t require any initial investment or flight permits to be used. However, satellites don’t provide the same spatial resolution in the centimetres as drones.

Drones too, can carry a variety of sensors, such as optical, thermal, lidar, and they are great in providing centimetre resolution imagery and data of specific portions of a utility network. The resolution that drones can achieve means that they can provide in-depth analyses on the overheated elements of power lines, corrosion of overhead equipment, and even small defects. However, they won’t ever be able to achieve the same scale and speed of data capture as satellites, both for technical and regulatory constraints.

When combined, satellites can provide a high-level overview of the areas across an entire network most at risk of encroachments, and those where environmental factors could cause stress in the equipment. Drones could then be deployed in those higher risk areas in order to provide a more detailed assessment of both the risks and the status of the equipment.

Satellites and drones are not alternative technologies: they respond to different business needs and are great when they complement each other. Indeed, Spottitt is happy to work with companies like Hepta Airborne, one of the main providers of drone-based inspections, in order to help our power network operators get a more complete, digital asset monitoring solution. 

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