Power Plant Maintenance: What Is Required and How Drones Can Help

Power plant maintenance is crucial for safety and preserving the longevity of plant assets. Read this guide for an overview of what that maintenance requires and how drones can help.

Power plant maintenance is essential for operations at all power plants, both to ensure the safety of personnel at the plant and to keep all of the assets and infrastructure in good working order.

Without the right maintenance procedures key equipment and machinery can fall into disrepair, leading to potentially dangerous situations on site and also to the premature failure of expensive equipment used in generating power.

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A Coal-Fired Power Plant in Eastern Germany

Given that new construction is incredibly expensive, power plant owners would generally prefer to prolong the life of an existing power plant over building a new plant or adding onto an existing one. The longer a plant can run the more cost-effective it is over time, and maintenance plays a crucial role in maximizing the longevity of a plant. 

Power plant maintenance is a blanket term that refers not just to the maintenance of assets and equipment but also to routine inspections, installation of equipment, regular reporting, systems integrations and reviews, and scheduled preventative maintenance—all of the work required to help the plant stay active and in good working order from one day to the next.

In this article we’ll cover how power plants work, what power plant maintenance entails, how inspections fit into maintenance procedures, and then take a look at how four different ways that drones can help improve power plant maintenance.

Here is a table of contents in case you would like to jump around within the article:

How Power Plants Work

Power plants convert raw energy sources such as coal, nuclear heat, or wind, into usable power in the form of electricity. 

A thermal power plant, which is one of the most common types, is a plant that creates power by burning fuel to convert it into electricity. 

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A Thermal Power Plant in Bulgaria

In a typical thermal power plant, fuel is heated to convert water into steam. The steam is then sent through a turbine connected to an electric generator in order to create electricity.

Here are some examples of thermal power plants:

  • Nuclear power plants use heat from a nuclear reactor to turn water into steam, and then convert the steam into electricity.
  • Coal power plants burn coal to turn water into steam, and then convert the steam into electricity.

In addition to thermal power plants, which burn fuel to convert water into steam in order to generate power, there are also power plants that convert energy from naturally occurring sources into power:

  • Hydroelectric power plants use the energy of water running through turbines to generate electricity.
  • Solar power plants use solar panels to convert the sun’s energy into electricity.
  • Wind power plants use the energy of wind turning giant fan blades to generate electricity.

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Wind Turbines Generate Power for Wind Power Plants

What Is Required in Power Plant Maintenance

Power plants require thorough, well-kept maintenance protocols in order to stay safe and continue regular operations. 

In power plants there is often one engineer devoted to maintenance, who holds the title Power Plant Maintenance Engineer.

The Power Plant Maintenance Engineer is not responsible for doing every single maintenance-related job at the plant—it would be far too much work for one person to do—but is rather the person who helps supervise these jobs and makes sure that they are being done according to relevant industry standards.

Complex Systems for Power Plant Maintenance

At a power plant, keeping up with maintenance is incredibly complex and challenging, but also crucial for safety. 

If a problem at the plant does not get addressed quickly it could develop into a life-threatening issue. But there is no way that personnel onsite can keep track of the status of each component and asset the plant uses from one minute to the next.

This is why power plants use computerized systems to track the real-time status of their equipment, down to small details, so that nothing slips between the cracks.

Here are the two primary systems used in power plant maintenance:

  • SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition). SCADA is a complex industrial control system that uses computers and network data communications to monitor plant and machinery conditions. SCADA is used in several industrial processes, including power plant maintenance, refining, fabrication, and manufacturing.
  • CMMS (Computerized Maintenance Management System). Because there are so many different things to keep track of at power plants, engineers in charge of maintenance use a CMMS to help them track, share, and archive maintenance schedules and reporting.

It’s common for a plant’s CMMS to be integrated with its SCADA systems so that certain dates or events will lead to automatic work order creation for recurring items, such as preventive maintenance or inspections. This integration is also often used for sharing information about security-related issues like fault detection, alarms, and abnormal conditions detected within the plant. 

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A Control Room at an Old Power Plant

What a Power Plant Maintenance Engineer Does

So what exactly is required for power plant maintenance?

One way to answer this question is to look at the list of items that a Power Plant Maintenance Engineer oversees.

Here is an example list:

  • CMMS and SCADA coordination and integration
  • Maintaining documentation about the plant’s maintenance procedures
  • Technical support in anything maintenance-related at the plant
  • Developing and making sure personnel adhere to preventive maintenance schedules
  • Ensuring that inspections and maintenance are being conducted in compliance with relevant industry standards
  • Being the connector at the plant between those doing the work (i.e., engineers and other plant workers), management, and outside parties like regulators who require insight into the plant’s maintenance procedures 
  • Preparing reporting and sharing it with stakeholders at the plant

Three Ways Drones Can Help Improve Power Plant Maintenance

Inspections are an important part of maintenance at any power plant.

Routine inspections help ensure that all the assets used in a plant’s processes are in good working order, and uncover possible problems long before they develop into issues that could endanger personnel.

One of the most difficult types of inspections that must be conducted regularly at a power plant are inspections of the inside of an asset, like a tank or a boiler. 

Conducting these indoor inspections requires inspectors to stand on scaffolding and use flashlights in confined, cramped spaces, exposing themselves to potential harm. And building the scaffolding can be costly and prolong downtimes, since maintenance workers often need one to two days to construct it and then another one to two days to take it down.

Using a drone removes the need for scaffolding at this stage, since it removes the need for a person to enter the confined space in the first place.

Using Drones Instead of People

Drones made for flying in confined spaces can take the place of the inspector’s physical presence, allowing the inspector to collect visual data about the conditions within the asset remotely, without ever having to enter it.

Flyability’s Elios 1 and Elios 2 were created for flying in tight spaces, like boilers and tanks, in order to collect high quality, inspection-grade visual data. Both drones were designed to be collision-tolerant, sitting within a cage that allows the drone to bump into objects without crashing.

Here are three ways that drones like the Elios 1 and Elios 2 can help improve power plant maintenance.

1. Safety

Sending a drone into a confined space instead of a person helps keep that person out of potentially dangerous scenarios.

This is especially true at nuclear power plants, where the danger is not potential but real.

When conducting nuclear power plant inspections, inspectors must often expose themselves to radiation in order to reach the areas of the plant that need to be inspected. In a single inspection of one to two minutes of the inside of the reactor building, an inspector can receive up to 250 millirem (2’500 µSv) of radiation, which is about 10% of the annual limit for radiation exposure.

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A Picture Taken by the Elios 1 While Inspecting a Nuclear Power Plant

In addition, a radiation monitor must accompany inspectors when they are conducting inspections, which means that two people are exposed to radiation every time an inspection occurs.

Using a drone to collect visual data at a nuclear power plant removes the need for human exposure to radiation, allowing inspectors to remain safely outside the tanks and other irradiated areas while the drone enters them to collect visual data on their condition.

[Related reading: How Drones Can Help Nuclear Power Plants Reach ALARA Goals]

2. ROI

Using a drone instead of a person to collect visual data can help power plants realize significant savings, often of tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

These savings primarily come from:

  • Removing the need for building scaffolding for inspectors to stand on inside of assets
  • Removing the extra downtime required to build scaffolding

After saving $420,000 in a single test flight of the Elios 1, Argentinian energy company Pampa Energia decided to invest in the Elios 2 country-wide. Learn more about how the company saved so much money with a single flight.

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The Elios 2 Conducting an Inspection at a Coal-Fired Power Plant in the Ukraine

3. Longevity of assets

Because drone inspections are so much cheaper than manual inspections, drones allow companies to increase the frequency of inspections while still realizing significant savings.

Over time, increasing the frequency of inspections can help increase the longevity of power plant assets by uncovering potential problems and addressing them earlier than they would be otherwise.

Increased inspections are also good for the environment, studies have shown. Independent consulting group Boiler Room Consulting found that an increase in the frequency of boiler inspections, which was supported by Flyability drones, could potentially reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 649 metric tons a year. 

Want to learn more? Check out this page devoted to power generation on the Flyability website to see all the ways that drones can help power plants improve their maintenance processes.

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