Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Eyes in the Sky Drones Give Firstenergy a Quick and Easy Look at Plants

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Eyes in the Sky Drones Give Firstenergy a Quick and Easy Look at Plants

Article excerpt

Until recently, John Anna and his crew of engineers climbed on temporary scaffolding as high as 100 feet to check out expansion joints at FirstEnergy Corp.'s natural gas-fired power plant in Springdale. From start to finish, the annual inspection took nearly an entire day.

Now, Mr. Anna, the plant's manager of advanced maintenance practices, sits down at a conference table and studies video captured earlier by a camera affixed to a 2.5-pound drone.

"It's essentially the same picture," Mr. Anna said. The giant building housing the heat recovery generator and cooler has five expansion joints, which are springy mechanisms that provides some cushion to exterior duct work as the building tends to expand and contract rapidly.

As federal aviation regulators are racing to come up with national rules governing the use of drones for recreational and commercial purposes, electric utilities have officially entered the fray. Given the dangers, time and expense with overseeing some aspects of its infrastructure, utilities are increasingly considering drones to survey and inspect infrastructure.

For about a year, FirstEnergy, an Akron, Ohio-based owner of four power stations in southwestern Pennsylvania, has been using drones to perform routine inspections at its generating plants. Both Mr. Anna and Dave Belski, senior generation specialist at FirstEnergy, first flew the unmanned craft inside to inspect emissions control equipment.

"It takes a little bit of practice," Mr. Belski said with a laugh, adding that he never expected that his maintenance duties would include remotely flying an aircraft.

Further, FirstEnergy is preparing to file for a 333 exemption, a license that the Federal Aviation Administration requires for outdoor commercial flights, in an approval process that usually takes six to nine months. For now, the company contracts with licensed operators.

During a recent demonstration of a drone inspection at the Springdale plant - an inspection the company performed a few days earlier - Theiss UAV Solutions of Salem, Ohio provided piloting services. In briefing reporters before the flight, Shawn Theiss, the company's general manager and founder, said the technology is ideal for electric utilities but complicated considering the fast-changing rules. …

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