Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

CUTTING EDGE KEEPS POWER ON; Ameren Missouri Uses Aerial Saw to Clear Tree Branches from Power Lines in Rugged Areas

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

CUTTING EDGE KEEPS POWER ON; Ameren Missouri Uses Aerial Saw to Clear Tree Branches from Power Lines in Rugged Areas

Article excerpt

PORTLAND, MO. - Travelers along state Highway 94 on a recent Friday morning may have noticed a small yellow and white helicopter hovering above a thicket of trees just south of the road.

That's a curious enough sight by itself. But even weirder is a system of 10 spinning circular blades suspended from the belly of the chopper by a 90-foot boom.

The giant flying saw looks like a sinister war machine, similar to the one that slices through James Bond's BMW in the 1999 movie "The World Is Not Enough." But it's actually a tool deployed by Ameren Missouri to help keep the utility's 33,000-mile power distribution system free and clear of tree limbs.

Trees and limbs can cause big problems for electric utilities and their customers. More than 2 million homes and businesses were left powerless after strong storms swept through the eastern United States over the weekend. In all, parts of 10 states and Washington were affected by the storms, with some utility customers left in the dark for days amid a crippling heat wave.

Ameren Missouri, which dispatched crews to help with power restoration efforts in Chicago, faced its own problems with storm- related outages several years ago. The utility will spend $53 million on tree trimming this year and cut along 4,000 miles of circuit each year as required by state regulations. Most of it is done by ground crews. The aerial saw is used for only the toughest 1 percent of the work.

"We use this in some real rugged, remote terrain where we can't get our equipment in," said Tom Beerman, Ameren Missouri's manager of forestry.

On this day, helicopter pilot Will Nesbit is trimming about 2 miles of circuit, including a short stretch of power line just south of Highway 94 near the Katy Trail. The wooded area is just off a private gravel road owned by Ameren. But a steep embankment and nearby creek make access difficult.

Before the day's flight, Nesbit studied a large map of the area with circuits he's going to trim highlighted in pink. Throughout his flight he stays in radio contact with two men who follow below on an all-terrain vehicle. Among other responsibilities, the ground crew scouts any unforeseen obstacles, such as a telephone line.

The tiny helicopter buzzes loudly as it clears the treetops, sounding something like the millions of cicadas that invaded the St. Louis area last spring. As Nesbit budges the chopper forward, learning out of the cockpit, the massive 22-foot saw dangling below effortlessly sheers off large limbs. Nesbit works top to bottom on the trees.

Within minutes, a half-mile stretch of right of way is cleared.

"What he did right there, if you did that with a climbing crew, it's a day's work," Beerman said.

Nesbit, 35, has spent six years as a pilot for Aerial Solutions Inc., a Tabor City, N.C.-based company that claims to have pioneered aerial tree trimming. …

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