JACKSON, Mich. (Michigan News Source) – Several months after a statewide power outage left thousands of customers without power, Consumers Energy is using drones to reduce the likelihood that severe outages will happen again.

“We look for any signs of damage on any of the equipment,” Matt Henry, director of grid modernization, told WOOD-TV. “If there’s a crack in an insulator, a crack in a crossarm—one of the wood poles—any signs that might lead to an outage, we try to find those and fix them before they become an outage and customers lose power.”

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According to Consumers Energy, about 4,000 miles of their power lines are inspected by helicopter crews. But another 400 miles are inaccessible to helicopters due to airspace regulations or thick brush. These 400 miles are inspected by a small crew of licensed drone operators with a fleet of about two dozen drones.

“In the past it could have taken us days to locate an issue with employees having to walk through some rough terrain at times,” Henry said. “Now we can safely identify the issue in minutes and in top priority situations have the crew immediately come out and fix it.”

Consumers also uses its drones to inspect solar gardens, pipelines, and hydroelectric generators. The company invests about $100 million in drone operations annually.

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The program launched in 2015, when Consumers Energy became the first Michigan energy company – and the fourth in the U.S. – to obtain Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval to operate drones. Mary Palkovitch, then vice president of energy delivery, said she hoped the new drones would help Consumers energy provide “safe, affordable, reliable, and environmentally sustainable energy” to its customers. The program launched near a Jackson County electric substation and has since been expanded.

“The capability of our drones has improved vastly over the last 10 to 15 years,” Henry said. “I am excited to see how they will evolve over the next 10 to 15 years. They are a versatile tool that will be a huge part of our reliability future.”