Drones Rise to the Challenge

Saving money and reducing safety risks at a nuclear power plant

By: | October 26, 2018

This is not a post about the potential of drone technology. It is a real-life account of how drones are making a significant difference today. What’s more, it’s happening within the highly secure and carefully monitored environment of a nuclear power plant.

Recently our Prairie Island Nuclear Plant in Minnesota had its two landmark reactor buildings visually inspected by drones. This was the first time an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) was deployed at one of Xcel Energy’s nuclear plants to fulfill a technical function. And based on the mission team’s enthusiasm, it won’t be the last.

“I read a story last year about ways Xcel Energy was using its drones to inspect their transmission lines,” said Dileep Cherlopalle, Xcel Energy senior nuclear engineer. “I realized the reactor building inspection could be a great application of the technology and an innovative way for the Nuclear Department to effectively use the tool.”

Success is inspiring more uses.

After weighing the options between using a drone instead of the usual approach of bringing in a huge crane for the inspection, Cherlopalle and his manager, Tim LaHann, crunched the numbers. The drone would save almost $145,000. Eliminating the crane also vastly reduced the safety risks to the inspection crew and plant personnel, plus it shortened the entire process to hours instead of days. With all that in mind, the opportunity was too attractive to pass up. A cross-functional team of Xcel Energy business units was created to make the mission possible.

“The inspection showcased Xcel Energy partnerships working hand-in-hand for high-value results,” said Eileen Lockhart, Xcel Energy Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program manager, based in Lakewood, Colorado. “Nuclear owned the mission and the drone, and Energy Supply flew it with support from top leadership in the company. We streamlined work, reduced costs and optimized the results. That’s the kind of innovation we’re trying to foster everywhere at Xcel Energy.”

Drone fleet growth

Xcel Energy began using UAS outdoors in 2015, expanding the fleet to 16 drones for indoor and outdoor inspections in just three years. An early enthusiast for the program is Tom Stegge, a planner at Xcel Energy’s King coal plant in Bayport, Minn. He is now certified by the FAA to fly drones for the company and was at the controls for the Prairie Island inspection. Stegge believes that sharing the news of a mission like this can inspire other areas of the company to apply this technology, too.

“The successes we achieved at Prairie Island are repeatable at multiple Xcel Energy sites,” said Stegge. “Our customers want us to find ways to keep their energy bills low. Using drones is one beneficial way to help ease those cost pressures without sacrificing safety or results.”

An inside view

Inspections of Prairie Island’s reactor building’s domes and walls are conducted regularly. The drone was able to see areas that the crane couldn’t reach, sending crisp video imagery that enables engineering personnel to document the building’s structural health.

With this mission success in the books, the team is eager to find other nuclear applications that are costly and challenging to inspect and reap the benefits of UAS technology. It’s an ideal solution for a sensitive environment where detailed results are vital.

Watch for more drones taking to the sky in and around Xcel Energy properties and locations. For more info on our nuclear power resources visit our dedicated websites for our Prairie Island and Monticello plants.

Tags: safety

An avid writer and communications consultant with a specialty in nuclear power.