Drones Playing Key Role In North Dakota Storm Damage Assessment Research

MAYVILLE, N.D. — A research project exploring how drones could be used to improve damage assessment efforts of utility infrastructure following a natural disaster is set to make headway in the coming weeks.

Xcel Energy, the University of North Dakota and Elbit Systems of America, among other partners, will deploy drones to find and assess natural disaster damage staged in the town of Mayville. The group’s goal is that its work will help utility companies get power back on for customers faster and keep their employees out of harm’s way.

Traditionally, some damage surveys are conducted using low flying airplanes that rely on crew members scanning an area for issues. Those flights aren’t without risks, but researchers are looking to replace those planes with drones in hopes of improving the process.

“Our whole view on the project is how do we lessen that time when our customers are going without energy and do it the safest way possible?” Mark Nisbet, Xcel’s North Dakota principal manager, said earlier this month. “When you’re flying manned planes going low and slow, there’s a good chance that you could run into problems, especially when you’re in an emergency situation.”

Drones can be deployed day or night and are capable of broadcasting a live feed back to their flight crews. In the case of storm damage assessment, those capabilities would keep humans away from dangerous areas and give crews a real-time look at any damage detected by the aircraft. 

Test flights are set for May 26 and May 31 in Mayville. The May 26 flight will have drones fly over a a simulated disaster that will include wounded residents, first responders and downed power lines, according to a news release.

The project would utilize drones in two stages to assess the damage. In the first stage, the group would send out the Hermes 450, a large drone that would collect data from a high altitude above the damaged areas.

From there, researchers would feed that imagery into data analysis software and see if it could isolate areas of damage. A second set of smaller drones would be flown into the testing area and used to inspect damaged equipment up close.

This year’s testing builds on work conducted by researchers last fall, which included using drones equipped with thermal cameras to assess damage at night. The project is funded through a $499,891 grant from the Research ND program, which provides matching grant funds to research projects created through a partnership between a state research university and a business.

The project will take center stage next week when research partners are expected present a summary of the group’s work so far at the Drone Focus Conference, which runs May 31 to June 1 in Fargo, N.D. If weather permits, the May 31 test flight will be broadcast live to the conference.