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The startup using drones to speedily install power lines and modernize our ancient grid

Updated: Oct 9

power lines against a yellow and blue sunset
Image Credit: Matthew Henry // Unsplash

  • One of the biggest hurdles standing in the way of the renewable energy transition is America’s snail-pace transmission growth and our outdated electricity grid.

  • Currently, estimates from the Department of Energy show that we will need almost 50,000 gigawatt miles of new lines by 2035 and triple that number by 2050. As transmission growth is stuck at about 1-1.5% a year, and we need to ramp up to 5.7% to reach that goal, business-as-usual may not cut it.

  • Many obstacles stand in the way of transmission growth, some being the cost, time, and risk, not to mention the environmental concerns of utility helicopters that currently do the job.

  • That’s why Australia and Texas-based startup Infravision, developed a drone that helps speed up the process, cutting time, cost, risk, and environmental impact. With a recent $23 million round, the startup is backed by leading energy and utility players and is the first startup of its kind to partner with Pacific Gas and Electric Company to deploy its tech in the Bay Area.

According to Van Der Berg, CEO of the Syndey, Australia and Austin, Texas-based startup Infravision, “It is estimated that 10 million miles of new power lines are required by 2030 to reach net-zero targets, which is roughly equivalent to building the entire U.S. and Canadian power grids again, which took us a century, in seven years.”

And he’s right. According to the United States Department of Energy (DOE), 47,300 gigawatt miles of new power lines are needed in America alone by 2035, expanding the current grid by 57%. By 2050, this number may need to be tripled the department reports. However, key hurdles stand in the way of those new powerlines.

As a recent assessment by JP Morgan shows, transmission growth in the U.S. was at a glacial 1.5% a year for decades. As the climate crisis rises in urgency and the goalposts for the renewable energy transition near, this number has slowed even further to 1% over the last five years. According to the DOE in order to meet the numbers laid out above, new transmission rates in the U.S. need to ramp up to 5.7%.

To make matters worse, the country is far behind other countries when it comes to laying down power lines, with 2,462 kilometers (1,529 miles) of high voltage direct current lines currently in place, with that number not projected to budge by 2026, as the publication Quartz explains. This type of line is needed to optimize renewables, which take up vast amounts of land in remote areas.

Comparatively, China currently has 47,990 kilometers of lines in operation with 65,988 kilometers planned by 2025, with India currently having 19,087 kilometers in operation and a whopping 165,635 kilometers planned by 2026. Other countries like Denmark, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Mexico are currently behind the U.S. when it comes to these kinds of lines, but even with smaller populations and less land, they are projected to pass up the U.S. within the decade.

Many hurdles stop the expansion in the U.S. including the country’s need for permitting reform, competing interests of stakeholders, and “not in my backyard arguments” from residents where lines would live. In fact, as it takes so long to get a powerline built in the U.S. renewable projects are stalled, putting the country’s decarbonization goals into limbo.

Traditionally, power line installation or repairs are done manually via utility helicopters, which according to Infravision poses serious safety and environmental impact concerns. Not to mention, powerline repair is one of America’s most dangerous jobs as technicians and engineers work with sensitive equipment at dangerous heights.

That’s why Infravision developed aerial robotics systems that reduce the risk both to workers and the environment, while, as the startup claims, maintaining the power of a helicopter and lowering the time it takes to complete installation projects, maintenance, and enabling rapid emergency response deployment in severe weather conditions when the power is knocked out.

The startup’s system works like this: a heavy-lift stringing drone, fit with transmission tines, pulls from an “electric smart puller tensioner,” that is inside of a tough offroad trailer. The drones can then fly high in the sky, from urban to remote regions, and string thousands of feet of static lines needed to transfer power.

Most recently, the startup raised $23 million in Series A financing, led by investment firm Energy Impact Partners (EIP), with participation from leading energy and utility players like Equinor Ventures and Edison International (EIX). With the money, the startup hopes to expand its system to further accelerate grid modernization.

Currently, the startup is working toward that, serving some of the largest electric utilities in North America and Australia including Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), which was the continent’s first utility company to leverage Infravision’s drone-enabled system.

During what may have been San Fransisco’s worst storm season, the startup’s system, known as the TX System, was used by PG&E to conduct energized power lines stringing over the urban areas of the Northern Bay Area more quickly than traditional means. According to Infravision, environments like this are complex, because one has to navigate built-up neighborhoods, industrial areas, and highways while passing over existing power line systems, all with minimal disruption to the community.

“Transmission is the backbone of the clean energy transition,” Sergej Mahnovski, Managing Director of Strategy, Technology and Innovation at EIX said in a statement on the investment.

“Currently it can take more than a decade to build a new transmission line, so the pace of expansion must increase quickly for California to meet the goal of 100% net zero carbon emission by 2045," he said, "Infravision’s drone solutions offer safe, fast, affordable ways to accelerate the huge transmission buildout we need, so we’re proud to support Infravision and their transformational technology that will help decarbonize the grid.”

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