The Robotic Revolution For Transmission Line Inspection

A vegetation encroachment anomaly detected during a power transmission line inspection

Electricity. As a society, we just can’t seem to get enough of it. While debates rage on about how best to generate it – hydro, nuclear, wind, solar, Dyson sphere – the way of transporting it remains tried and true. Every day, power grid networks of high-voltage transmission lines deliver the power we need to drive the world’s most important innovations, as well as waste time streaming cat videos, watching Netflix, or playing video games. There’s a balance to all things.

To that end, maintenance of these lines is critical. In a world of constant demand and lines running at maximum capacity, there is no margin for a shutdown of high-voltage transmission infrastructure. Maintenance needs to be preventative – not reactive – to keep the juice flowing.

For this reason, both federal and state regulators require utility companies to perform annual inspections of their transmission infrastructure and right-of-way (ROW). It can be very difficult and time-consuming to inspect a transmission corridor from the ground, so many utilize helicopters for the task. However, these aerial inspections can cost millions of dollars in the long run, just to meet the bare minimum annual inspections1. Not to mention, helicopters are cost-prohibitive for routine monitoring, and tend to gather inconsistent data from inspection-to-inspection.

New platforms for high-quality aerial data can help you meet and far exceed these regulatory requirements, and greatly improve the data you’re using to inform maintenance efforts. With little human effort, you can source, analyze, action, and forecast issues around your transmission infrastructure and right-of-way corridor.

Letting AI Algorithms Do the Work

AI excels in visual perception tasks, so it can scan image sets for signs of damage along the line, or even do the heavy lifting of generating comprehensive and high-resolution 3D models much faster than human-only analysis. Training AI on 3D or elevation models of your powerline infrastructure and right-of-ways will allow it to automatically identify and classify anomalies on:

  • The ground, such as ground movement or erosion
  • Power lines, such as hotspots or indicators of corona discharge 
  • Transmission towers, such as corrosion, broken components, and foreign objects on the tower
  • Surrounding vegetation, such as tree growth rate and areas of vegetation encroachment
  • Other important objects on your ROW, such as unauthorized debris and construction activity

Furthermore, the technology can go beyond baseline anomaly detection and conducts further analysis, such as crucial measurements of transmission line sag, vegetation overgrowth, and more – and let you know if there’s any cause for concern. With much of the grunt work completed, you can focus your team’s time and effort on translating high-impact reports into intelligent decisions on maintenance and resource management.

Unlock Foresight with SkyVision

From the comparative analysis of historical records, a predictive model can identify hotspot areas of recurring issues such as structural damage, electrical anomalies, or ROW violations. Through change detection, the model can measure gradual increases in vegetation growth or the rate at which a transmission line sags with each inspection. The ability to identify hotspots and flag developing issues before they become a problem is a major advantage.

This advantage only grows stronger when you combine your SkyVision data with other relevant sensory data used for your transmission line integrity. Internal data such as current monitors can be combined with thermal detections of power cable and insulator damage, to understand how lines with maxed-out capacity may be getting overtaxed.

Even external data, such as weather, can play an important role. Performing an aerial inspection after severe weather events, like a storm, SkyVision can pinpoint areas that have suffered damage. Over time, you can gain an understanding of what areas of your transmission line are more susceptible to extreme weather and plan accordingly.

Eyes on the Prize

By sourcing the right visual insights in the field, you can generate the aerial data you need to solve problems along your power transmission corridor:

  • ROW Monitoring: With overlapping image-capture of your ROW, the SkyVision platform can process survey-grade, spatially-accurate orthomosaics for an all-encompassing visualization of your ROW. AI algorithms can leverage the ortho to identify any encumbrances or debris on your ROW that could limit crew access.
  • Cable Damage: With the sheer amount of voltage running through your line 24/7, flaws in the line are bound to raise their head. When damage to cables and insulators occurs, the increase in electrical resistance increases the temperature of the component. Through analysis of visual data from the infrared spectrum you will receive a picklist of all thermal anomalies along your transmission line.
  • Tower Integrity: Quickly identify physical damage to transmission towers such as corrosion or missing components through AI-driven analysis of high-resolution imagery. This analysis can also detect foreign objects such as bird nests or kites/balloons that have found their way into the structure.
  • Vegetation Encroachment and Line Sag: Get alerts on line sag progress and vegetation that is reaching an unsafe distance from your transmission line. 3D point cloud models derived from a LiDAR survey provide precise measurements of transmission infrastructure, vegetation, and even the terrain itself along your ROW. SkyVision can recognize lines, towers, and trees; classify them accordingly, and do the laborious measurements for you.
  • Line Inventory: There are a number of components on a transmission line that are essential to maintaining performance. Through object detection and classification an aerial data solution can catalog the insulators, dampers, conductors, spacers, and other important equipment along your line. If something’s missing, the system will notify you.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Government entities, such as the US Federal Energy Regulation Commission, require utility companies to demonstrate accordance with reliability standards. Through routine and consistent monitoring through aerial data, that allows you to forecast and mitigate developing issues, you can drive a standard of maintenance excellence that ensures a green light to operate.
  • Growing Operations: Aside from routine maintenance, line operators are constantly being asked to do more with existing infrastructure. The accurate measurements from a LiDAR survey provides fantastic data for engineers needing to plan and implement line capacity upgrades.

Best of all, this aerial data process is happening autonomously with zero effort on the part of your team. Avoid having to send valuable staff on lengthy expeditions to examine remote infrastructure and unburden the bright minds of your remote management team from tedious data analysis. The only thing left for your staff to do, is to translate key data points into smart maintenance action.

End the Circus Happening Around Your Powerlines

To source data in a consistent, repeatable, and efficient way – UAVs are the best choice for the job. With a high level of operational autonomy, a UAV can fly your transmission ROW via a set of precise GPS coordinates to ensure that imagery collection is happening from the same location, altitude, and angle every time. When paired with a xStation for self-sufficient take-off, landing, recharging, and data upload, the UAV becomes a remote sensor that lives and breathes alongside your transmission infrastructure.

With the UAV routinely sourcing consistent imagery for analysis, computer vision models now have plenty of data and a bevy of historical data sets to perform intelligent change detection analysis.

Not to mention, the traditional methods for surveying and inspecting high voltage transmission lines range from tedious to outright terrifying.

Ground-based surveys are a labor-intensive and time-consuming process that can be made orders of magnitude worse by the terrain you’re dealing with. Powerline corridors run through dense forests, across rivers, and over mountains. By the time your crew finally gets to the area of inspection, they may only have time to inspect a tower or two before they have to pack it up and call it a day.

Taking inspections to the sky with a helicopter can get the job done quicker. But, let’s just say there’s a reason that aerial linemen are featured on television shows like Extreme Jobs and can build massive YouTube followings with video recordings of their day: it’s a terrifying line of work. Yes, pun intended.

But most importantly, these traditional methods yield highly-subjective data from inspection-to-inspection, that fails to give you a holistic visualization of your transmission corridor.

In Conclusion…

Aerial data solutions can help you to completely visualize your transmission infrastructure and ROW. By integrating a variety of visual insights into an AI-driven system that gets your eyes on the key points of data, you can fuel a predictive model that allows you to monitor and forecast developing issues on your transmission line.

Have questions about how high-quality aerial data can elevate your organization?
Contact our team to discuss your unique challenges and data requirements.


  1. Drones for Power Line Inspections, Isaac Bruns, Utility Products, 2019