How Automated Image Management Can Assist Electric Utility Inspections

Electric utilities are facing increased pressure from regulators to reduce operation and maintenance (O&M) costs. However, utility assets are only getting older and will have to be inspected more frequently in the coming years to prevent interruptions in service caused by hardware failure. 

To support maintenance activities, utilities must collect and track inspection data through the full asset lifecycle to proactively repair defects and damages before they become an issue. Unfortunately, most utility companies still rely on manual data handling, including individual file management, organization, and review.

According to the US Department of Energy Next-Generation Grid Technologies, there were 600,000 miles of transmission lines and 5.5 million miles of distribution lines in 2021. Current processes don’t support the growth of resilient infrastructure, so technology solutions for automated data management are necessary.

Current State of the Industry

Today, most transmission and distribution inspections are performed by drones, aircraft, or in person by line workers and dedicated inspectors. Assessments done by line workers and inspectors require a high level of knowledge gained by years of field experience to correctly determine the acceptable level of risk associated with an asset defect. A misjudgment or delay in reacting to a repair recommendation could result in operational interruptions or outages. 

Due to the amount of asset familiarity, inspectors carry a great deal of siloed knowledge. It allows them to know what types of defects are critical, which require immediate action, and how deficiencies evolve. Often, that information isn’t disseminated or made accessible to the organization and is usually lost when workers resign or retire.

Some states have begun recommending standards for data collection, damage reporting, and inspection cycles to prevent a knowledge gap for new generations. However, regulations are inconsistent across jurisdictions, and electric utility networks don’t stop at state boundaries. 

Unfortunately, there are limited technologies designed to enforce standardized practices. This means the responsibility of data management remains with the inspector. For example, when image data is collected, careful consideration must be made to ensure that details like asset type and location are recorded correctly. Workers must also remember to pass all data to supporting departments for review and work order creation.

Recommendations: Automatic Image Assignment

According to 2013 United States Department of Agriculture data, each utility inspector can check 150-200 electric distribution poles per week. With so many photos coming from many sources, image and data management becomes a significant problem for the utility enterprise to maintain. However, utilities can solve these problems with automatic image assignment.

Most imagery collected from mobile devices or drones is embedded with location information. This metadata can be used with GIS information to geographically associate images to assets stored in a GIS database. 

Performing uploads, ingestion, and association-to-asset steps automatically can significantly reduce inspectors’ time handling data. Drone and helicopter inspections would also no longer require SD card swaps to manage local files, saving valuable post-flight hours that previously were spent reviewing imagery.

Automatic data handling would also enable a single destination for all field data regardless of the team or collection method. A single source of information makes hand-offs, collaborations, and reviews more straightforward. Having a centralized data repository that can take captured images from all sources and automatically assign them to their specific assets also greatly increases inspector productivity, lowers labor costs, and generates more data to enable proactive maintenance and improve asset health.

Currently, drone-based transmission inspectors typically spend an hour cleaning and handling data for every five hours spent inspecting assets, or about one day per week on average. With an automated data workflow, organizations can unlock a 20% increase in time saved. Considering an automated workflow and central data repository affects more than one department; there are time-saving benefits for every team involved.

Using Data to Solve Problems

Utilities should encourage inspectors to capture digital data and expand on data collection methods to position themselves for the future electric grid. Through purposeful collection, organization, and analytics, companies have the opportunity to evolve. However, reliable technology is required to make these changes possible. Otherwise, continuing to collect data without making it useful and accessible for analysis perpetuates the disconnect between field teams and decision-makers. 

A straightforward way to identify assets needing inspection is by considering the commissioning date and marking when the asset was installed. However, these crucial details aren’t often documented within a digital ecosystem. The Biden Administration estimates that 70% of the nation’s transmission lines are over 25 years old, and officials say this aging infrastructure “makes American communities, critical infrastructure, and economic interests vulnerable.” Yet, utilities can’t quickly identify or report on the age of their installations.

In the short term, data handling improvements will benefit asset defect discovery. In the long term, image collection and annotation will lead to proactive maintenance or even predictive operations with the support of AI/ML and future innovation. Utility companies that implement automatic data handling and digital-first platforms will emerge as industry leaders.

Written by Gray Byers , Chief Business Officer of Thread

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Avoid digitizing written notes & annotated line drawings. Instead, collect data digitally.

Combine design drawings, infrastructure plans, & inspection data in one place.

Turn reactive repair into proactively managed assets, reduce downtime, & optimize maintenance schedules.

Use Cases

Quickly pull asset data together into workorder & inspection reports before sending teams out.

Eliminate redundant truck rolls & unproductive field operations.

Enable rigorous & repeatable robotic & sensor data acquisition without the need for external contractors.


Remove integration & automation gaps, enabling teams to better focus on their work & get more done, faster.

Enrich engagement across various teams including engineering, workorder management, & field operations

Store all data in one place including automatically ingested imagery, manual uploads, digitized field notes, & more.

All data, no matter the format or the richness, is associated with an asset in UNITI.

Package outcomes into reports & work orders in UNITI or integrate with your work order manager.