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New Mexico State University

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New Physical Science Lab contract might help speed power grid recovery after disasters

New Mexico State University's Unmanned Aircraft Systems program and its new partner, Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), recently completed tests that conclude that unmanned aircraft can be safely and effectively used to assess power grid damage following a storm or natural disaster.


These efforts by the NMSU Physical Science Laboratory's UAS program and EPRI could dramatically decrease the wait time on getting electrical power restored following an outage using an unmanned aircraft system called the Airborne Damage Assessment Module (ADAM) to examine and assess power lines after weather or other events cause damage to the lines. This evaluation process is the current bottleneck in assessing and repairing lines, according to the NMSU-EPRI contract.

"This is a different application of unmanned aircraft (UA) and is focused on disaster relief, " said Steve Hottman, associate dean and deputy director, NMSU Physical Science Laboratory. "When Hurricane Katrina came into New Orleans, the FAA wouldn't allow unmanned aircraft to be used during the relief efforts for obvious safety reasons. We hope to develop a safety case and concept of operations to show that UA can be used safely and effectively for this application in the future."

The ADAM prototype will provide high definition streaming video of damaged infrastructure; this video can then be analyzed by the utility's office and teams dispatched for restoration and recovery operations. This aerial capability could drastically decrease the time the overall process takes in the future.

"After a tornado or a hurricane, trees are often blocking roads and obstacles like this causes delays in getting ground crews out to analyze the situation," Hottman said. "If you launch unmanned aircraft, you have no worries over road conditions. The UA can fly over the damaged areas and send back GPS coordinates of sections that are down, relaying that information back to the utility provider."

"PSL will develop a series of concepts of operations, which will address the FAA 'crawl - walk - run' approach performing assessments and validations, including a FAA safety management study along with demonstrations of capabilities for each level," said Dennis "Zak" Zaklan, UAS flight test center deputy director at PSL and principal researcher on the project.

The work will conclude with an NMSU/PSL demonstration of the system's capabilities, estimated to take place near the end of 2012.