For years, the U.S. military and law enforcement agencies across the country have found Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR), a useful tool in situations when precise measurements are essential. The technology consists of a device that emits a million pulses of laser light per second, invisible to the human eye, with a sensor to measure the distance to the illuminated objects. For example, it can be used to pinpoint the distance from a target or determine the speed of a moving vehicle. Large engineering firms also have used LIDAR in land surveying.
However, the cost of a LIDAR system, ranging from $500,000 to $1 million until recently, kept the technology from being widely adopted in other fields. Now companies in various industries see the value in LIDAR data collection, and costs are coming down. In the next few years, reliance on LIDAR is likely to become much more common.
Electric power providers traditionally have relied on other data collection methods, such as handheld measuring devices supplemented by digital cameras. Experienced technicians have used these tools effectively to keep track of utility assets.
Ongoing changes in the joint use landscape are spurring power companies, including Alden's clients, to look at new ways to collect vital data. One of the most significant developments is the exponential increase in applications for small cell attachments to utility poles. This increase is driven by the arrival of 5G, which requires a much denser cellular network than was needed for previous generations of wireless technology.
These developments pose a challenge to the electric power providers that own much of the joint use infrastructure. A more dynamic environment demands accurate, up-to-date data on large numbers of assets, and this places great stress on the old methods of data collection and management.
Some key characteristics that demonstrate that LIDAR is worthwhile:
- It is faster. The need for speed is the most significant change we see in data collection. A LIDAR unit mounted on a conventional aircraft, or a drone can collect data on miles of power distribution lines far more quickly than technicians on the ground could do it, cutting the time at least in half.
- It is precise. LIDAR data accuracy is unsurpassed by conventional forms of measurement.
- It is more detailed. LIDAR measurements can be used to generate a 3-D image of whatever its sensors have captured – utility poles, transmission lines, attachments, guide wires, and nearby vegetation. It provides more information at a higher resolution than traditional methods can offer.
- It is useful in tough spots. Collecting data on foot can be an arduous task when a line runs up and down steep hills or through a swamp. Difficult terrain can add to the time required for LIDAR data collection, but it can still be the best option.
How Power Companies Can Use LIDAR
LIDAR data collection has multiple applications for utilities. Major ones include:
- Mass asset surveys. As always, it’s critical to maintain safe, reliable, uncompromising infrastructure. But the increasing number of attachments to utility poles, including equipment attached without permission, makes that job more challenging than before. Knowing how much space is available on a pole is crucial in making timely decisions about whether or not additional attachments should be allowed. LIDAR can provide complete data on each pole, including the configuration and height of all equipment and cables attached to it.
For example, a LIDAR-mounted drone could quickly survey 150 miles of fiber-optic cable, pinpointing each instance in which the cable’s attachment to a pole is out of compliance with local building codes.
- Vegetation management. LIDAR can pinpoint where and how closely nearby trees are encroaching on a distribution line. Limbs brushing against power lines can cause fires, and in a drought-stricken area, the results could be catastrophic. The continued growth of vegetation makes repeat surveys necessary, and LIDAR makes that process less burdensome.
- Structural load analysis. LIDAR data collection simplifies a job, such as determining how much stress a company’s poles are capable of withstanding. Alden, and one of our partners, recently used LIDAR to collect data on 14,000 poles for a client that wanted to know how many of the poles could withstand winds of 145 mph. We ran the data through structural analysis software and assigned a pass/fail rating to each pole.
Into the Future
As much as LIDAR can offer power companies now, it’s likely to become more useful in the future. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will enable a more in-depth and more sophisticated analysis of the detailed data LIDAR already provides.
At Alden, we’re committed to staying on top of the latest technology in data collection. Alden is using LIDAR today to provide timely solutions for our clients. At the same time, we will continue to use traditional field data collection methods for those who aren’t ready to make the leap to LIDAR.
One characteristic of LIDAR is that it produces a lot of data. At Alden, we not only know how to read LIDAR data, but we also have the best platform available to manage any utility data: Alden One®, the nationally recognized platform for joint use asset management. Alden One® makes it easier to track the growing flurry of joint use requests and maintain coordination among all departments and outside parties involved.
If you’d like to learn more about how Alden can help with data collection and data management, click below to contact a product specialist.