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New drone technology is coming to ease the power industry's labor crunch

In the foreground a quadcopter drone equipped with a camera hovers in front of a utility worker wearing a white hard hat, sunglasses, a neon green vest with orange stripes. He holds a controller for the device. Behind him are five utility poles in front of a chain link fence.
Image Credit: Flickr/First Energy Corp.

On the front lines of the energy transition, there's a labor problem coming for power companies in the U.S.

As the power industry hears more demands from consumers and regulators to increase transmission capacity, transition to lower cost sources of energy and build more energy storage for that cheap energy, they're having to do that with a workforce whose average age is around 47 years old.

These are folks nearing retirement. And what's worrying for an industry that's both the gateway and bottleneck for the rollout of low-cost solar and wind energy is that these folks can't be replaced fast enough (despite the fact that most salaries for utility workers range between $80,000 and $100,000).

Enter the robots.

For the last ten years or more automation has become top of mind for utilities. Power companies use drones to survey power lines and robots to dig tunnels and repair underground wiring, but a lot of the work on overhead transmission line repair, monitoring and maintenance still requires work from human technicians.

That's where the founder of startup technology company Linebird thinks it can add value.

Officially launched in 2021, Linebird began as a passion project for Michael Beiro, the company's founder and chief executive when he was still an undergrad and Virginia Commonwealth University back in 2018.

It was the young engineering student's last semester of school and he was working on an independent study project around industrial robotics applications.

Initially, Beiro was curious about using robots to dig underground power lines in a bid to get more transmission infrastructure built and improve the development of wind capacity in his home state.

But after working with managers at Dominion Energy, Beiro shifted his attention to developing drone attachments and technologies to improve safety and efficiency of the work that utility linemen were doing.

"I got called into the manager of transmission and forestry for Dominion," Beiro said. "He said, 'If you can get this lineman's tool onto a drone, that'd be good for the data it gets.'"

Beiro partnered with a local contractor named Lee Corbin and worked nights and weekends developing the commercial technology between research jobs at Virginia Commonwealth to pay the bills. He also brought on UAS experts Chase Coble and David Schul to develop and test the first prototypes.

With that, Linebird's technology was born. The company specializes in making a new kind of payload system and harness for drones that allows the robotic flyers to do more than just monitor transmission lines.

"The technology is the linkage between the drones and line work and line equipment and being able to use them in a way that doesn’t require custom aircraft or a ton of R&D on the tool side to adapt use cases from manned work to unmanned work," said Beiro.

With Linebird's toolkit drones can test the compression connectors on power lines (they're the splices that join power lines to towers). According to data reported to the state of California by PG&E , each failure at these connection points carries an 8% wildfire ignition risk.

The company also has the ability to equip existing drones with an amp meter reader to test the load on power lines without utility workers needing to do it themselves.

Finally, Linebird is working on other toolkits for hauling safety and rigging equipment and to help with the construction and re-conductoring of power lines. Those will also reduce the number of trips a lineman has to make up and down utility poles. Other products are in development for storm response, wildlife, and vegetation management.

"It’s a tool that’s going to make the lineman’s job safer, more productive and less punishing on their bodies and is something where you can draw in new talent to the workforce... [talent] that isn't necessarily interested in climbing poles for a living, but can fly drones," says Beiro.

"We make clear that this is a workforce amplification," he said. "There’s going to be way more work than hands in the electric and utility industry for the foreseeable future. That’s how we think of this as a method of improving how we access electric infrastructure overhead and a way to make that work a lot safer and a lot less costly as we all build the grid of the future."

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