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Minnesota Power exploring drone use

Power costs getting out of hand? The robots are here to help.

Minnesota Power is studying the use of drones to help commercial and industrial customers identify inefficiencies and potentially bring down bills.

"Inspecting rooftops on foot with a handheld infrared camera is very time-consuming and presents safety concerns," said energy efficiency analyst Craig Kedrowski in a Minnesota Power Journal story published earlier this month. "Drones were just emerging on the market, so we began to investigate how they might work as a method of delivery — we could find no one else in the country doing this."

The utility launched a few test flights over company headquarters and the Duluth Public Library early this year and repeated the tests with a more advanced thermal imaging camera in August.

Several food processing plants in the middle of the state received drone inspections as well.

"We could see leaks where insulation was not performing as it should, as well as equipment, refrigerant lines and heating and cooling aspects," Energy Insight consultant Tanuj Gulati said in the Minnesota Power Journal release. "The drone gave us the capability to capture the whole plant or rooftop in one picture and quickly identify potential trouble spots."

The advanced camera can identify the temperature in each pixel rather than provide a relative range seen in the familiar colorful glow of traditional heat sensors.

The drone trials are part of the utility's Conservation Improvement Program. Officials say the technology has come a long way but costs and cloudy regulations may present a challenge.

"The more we do with these infrared cameras on drones, the more we learn," Kedrowski said in the release. "Next, we need to sit down and review what has been done to date, analyze the costs and benefits and determine our next steps. It sure looks like there is potential, but it is a very developing process."

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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