Game of Drones: Tackling a fast new sport

Game of Drones: Tackling a fast new sport

You’ve heard about PPL Electric Utilities using drones to patrol power lines. Here’s the story of an employee who uses drones to win prizes.

Customer Experience Specialist Susie Smith recently competed in the MultiGP International Open, a drone racing event in Muncie, Ind., that drew about 200 competitors.

If you haven’t seen drone racing on ESPN, it’s pretty much what it sounds like. Pilots guide the unmanned aerial vehicles through designated courses, flying them through gates and around poles at speeds of 70 mph or more. Each drone has a camera on it, and the pilots wear goggles so they can fly using the view from the camera. (Photo at right courtesy Clint Hild.)

Smith took up drone racing about a year ago – and she’s gotten pretty good at it. She was the second-place finisher among all men and women racing the rookie track at the Muncie event, earning a trophy.

On the FAI U.S. Qualifier track, a different course, she placed third among female finishers. And on the International Open course, she was one of only two women to complete the course in the time limit. (She modestly notes: “Very few female pilots race drones.”)

Smith’s boyfriend, Tom, introduced her to drone racing, and they go to races about once a month. She likes the challenges of the sport, like memorizing courses on short notice. She also enjoys the camaraderie among participants.

“You spend the day outside in the sunshine with really cool people,” she said. “You’re making friendships, and everyone is cheering you on to get better. Even if you’re doing a race, if you have a mechanical problem, people will help you out.”

Smith notes that racers obey all regulations on drone use. For instance, racers must keep the drones within view at all times, just like the PPL employees who use drones to survey power lines. Drone racing events also include netting, barricades, fire extinguishers and other precautions to keep both competitors and racers safe.

Smith also says she’s applied human performance safety tools, which are used by our employees on the job, to her drone racing. For instance, drone chargers have five slots for different voltages of batteries – and the chargers can catch fire if you put a battery in the wrong slot. To avoid this error trap, she’s covered the charger slots she doesn’t use.

“That’s definitely something I learned at PPL,” she said.

Drone racing isn’t cheap – a drone can run several hundred dollars. But there are lower-cost ways to get introduced to the sport, like using online simulators that are good training tools, Smith said.

As for her future goals, Smith has a challenging target in sight: The fastest woman racer at next year’s Muncie meet will earn a trip to China as part of a U.S. national drone-racing team.

“I have a year to get faster,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t going to make it this year, but who knows what could happen next year?

“It’s really a lot of fun.”

The video below, provided by Susie Smith, is a little rough but gives you an idea of what a drone racer sees during a race.

Drones get roped in to line restoration work

Drones get roped in to line restoration work

Drones are more than just an innovative way to patrol and review electric delivery lines. They can be an innovative tool to help string them, too.

At least twice in recent weeks, our employees have turned to the unmanned aerial vehicles as a way to help with challenging line restoration work.

During recovery from the March 2 nor’easter, crews used a drone to help with a difficult job in the Shohola, Pike County, area. Crews had to get a line through a 1,200-foot section of ravine, with a downed tree blocking the right of way.

Regional Design Supervisor Bill Farber remembered hearing that Regional Design Supervisor Phil Brant had used a drone to help string lines during restoration work in Puerto Rico.  A drone was used there on three separate occasions to fly a pulling string across inaccessible areas ranging from 150 to 500 feet across.  Crews were then able to use the string flown in by the drone to pull line across the inaccessible areas.

Just as he did in Puerto Rico, Brant used a drone to fly a piece of line across the 1,200-foot ravine, proving PPL can achieve flights of greater length with continued success.

While other methods can be used to pull string through inaccessible areas, drones offer a more controlled, precise and safe way to do so.

“Using  drones for this purpose can save the company money and help us get lines rebuilt more quickly,” Farber said.

A drone also proved to be the right solution to a different weather-related challenge in the Harrisburg region.

In the Newport area, a single-phase line crosses Sherman Creek, which has an island in the middle. During the week of March 12, a tree on the island fell and took down the line.

The creek was too swollen for crews to wade across. So Field Supervisor Andy Breault reached out to Senior Engineer Tom Grosz, asking whether the drone used at the Lancaster Service Center might be usable.

The method was the same: Support Engineer Eric Resch attached a rope to the drone and flew it across the creek. The crew then used the rope to pull a new line across the creek. The drone flight took just 10 minutes for setup and five minutes to fly, Resch said.

“I flew the drone past the crew, and the rope dropped off the drone and pretty well landed right in their hands,” he said.

Of course, power line inspections continue to be the primary use for drones. But the aerial vehicles also are proving their worth in other ways.