Hamilton gets help from drone to stop power outages

Hamilton, we have liftoff.

A high-tech drone is on a mission to help Hamilton’s municipal utilities avoid power failures, and speed the process of ending power outages after storms.

“We’re going to use it for emergency storm restoration,” said Dave Bienemann, the city’s municipal arborist and utility forester. “So if a storm hits and knocks down utility poles, wires and trees, we can take the drone into a neighborhood to speed up the restoration process.”

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“The point would be to be more efficient, more safe, and rather than having people walking through with wires down, we can actually take the drone and fly over and see what’s there, as far as poles, electrical equipment that needs to be replaced or trees that are down, and other obstacles that are down in the road,” he said.

The DJI Phantom 4 Pro quad copter drone, which the city bought for $1,904, plus $240 for two extra batteries, can help crews after storms more quickly identify where wires and poles are down, and what electrical equipment needs to be replaced.

It can fly up to 45 mph, as high as about 390 feet, and can stay in the air about 30 minutes without a battery change, and holds amazingly steady up in the air, as it did recently in Joyce Park, when Bienemann, associate utilities engineering technician Cody Turman, associate electric engineer Dalton Marcum, electric utilities intern Parker Peluso and urban forestry intern Mallory Dickey took it on a practice run.

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It’s remarkably easy to fly — so much so that anyone with video gaming experience quickly catches on to use of the remote controls, Turman said. The machine also can record high-quality videos and photographs.

Still, those who will be flying it are required to take drone-flight training and then pass a test before being able to operate it.

After liftoff, the 0.96-pound small machine quickly became a dot in the sky above the Joyce Park soccer fields.

Bienemann said the machine also can help police and firefighters during emergencies, and produce videos the city can create to market Hamilton, such as during this past weekend’s Operation Pumpkin festival.

“We can use it for inventory and tree inspection,” he said. “Instead of a person going up to each tree and measuring it, we can just stand in the street and fly the drone down the street and look at each tree. After a while, you’re going to get a feel for the diameter (of a tree), what’s a 20-inch, what’s a 30-inch, on camera.

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It has an anti-collision system that prevents it from crashing into objects, by steering around objects when it gets within 3 feet of them.

“So we can fly it up and down the street and look at 20 trees,” he said. “Normally, you would spend 20 minutes a tree, and now maybe we’ll only have to spend 5 minutes a tree, with the drone, doing a condition rating.”

Particularly after storms, “we can come in, fly over, and see if there’s any broken branches that need to be addressed, that you wouldn’t see normally from the ground.”

The drone also could help National Weather Service officials when they visit town after violent storms to determine whether a tornado touched down, as they did in June 2016, after strong winds blew over trees in Lindenwald.

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The drone can also be used to detect damage to trees caused by insects, such as the emerald ash borer and Asian long-horned beetle.

“If we want to see, ‘What is the canopy cover?’” Bienemann said, “We can fly over a neighborhood and get a shot of the trees and their condition.”

“From a utility standpoint, we have transmission towers that run down to our hydro plants,” Bienemann said. “If we fly in a helicopter, it’s about $800 an hour, and it’s a 10-hour minimum. Well, now we can go down with the drone and we can stand on the hill, and we can fly up to about a quarter mile — within your line of sight — and you can fly up to the transmission-line poles or steel structures and look for any maintenance issues, woodpecker holes, or are there any trees or brush getting close to the line.

“That will give us boots on the ground, and we can inspect the rights-of-way,” he said.

Crews also can use the drones to figure out the best route to a location in such areas, he said, rather than guessing where clearings might be.

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