If you thought you saw several drones mysteriously buzzing across the Schuylkill River in early June, your eyes were not deceiving you. The drones were part of a complex and innovative project to reinstall several spans of electric lines that were brought down during the early June derecho, which ravaged southeastern Pennsylvania with short bursts of intense rain and high winds gusting up to 80 miles per hour. The severe storm brought down trees and tree limbs; damaged utility poles and electric equipment; and caused power outages for more than 550,000 customers across the region.

While assessing damage from the storm using a drone, a PECO crew discovered a tree that had taken down three 700-foot spans of wire that cross the river. By using drones to assess the damage, crews were able to quickly identify issues across the region from the air rather than patrolling the area from the ground, which helped speed up restoration times for customers.

Teams from across the company then developed and weighed several options to rehang the electric lines across the river, which was made more challenging given the body of water below. Options considered included the use of a boat or a helicopter, but each presented its own unique set of challenges.

The team determined the best option would be to have a drone fly the lines across the river between two team members in bucket trucks, who would then secure the lines to existing utility poles. This process was implemented previously by PECO teams who were deployed to Puerto Rico as part of power restoration efforts following Hurricane Maria.  

After conducting a test in an open field to ensure the process would work, they took the show on the road. The team stayed in constant communication with each other to spot the drone and overcome any additional obstacles during the flight. As the drone reached each crew, they would disconnect the line from the drone and attach it to the pole until the process was complete.

“The biggest challenge and key to our success was communication and having the whole team on the same page,” said Jason Smith, PECO supervisor, Transmission, who piloted the drone during the project. “Being able to witness the test brought everyone together to get a feel for the operation and provide input. This was a great example of several teams from across PECO and contractors coming together and using new technology.”  

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