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High-flying drones a game-changer for inspections at OPG’s operations

Across OPG’s operations, advanced drones have been taking to the air to provide unprecedented views of the company’s hydroelectric and nuclear facilities.

A drone flies through the air during an inspection at OPG's Abitibi Canyon GS.
A drone flies through the air during an inspection at OPG's Abitibi Canyon GS.

Under the guidance of trained and certified drone pilots in OPG’s Inspection and Reactor Innovation (IRI) division, the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) have carried out vital inspections at OPG sites to help ensure the company’s operations operate safely and reliably.

Most recently, in a first for the company, a drone was flown inside the Unit 4 reactor at Darlington Nuclear Generating Station to map the reactor face for radiation levels.

“We’re trying to innovate and push the boundaries of what drones can do,” said Mark Good, Section Manger of IRI’s RPAS (Drone) and Dive crew. “This technology is changing the way we do inspections, we are achieving efficiencies in costs and time, and most importantly we are reducing the risk for employees working at height.”

While the technology is new and constantly evolving, Good says his team always puts safety first by flying in accordance with regulations set out by Transport Canada. Since the program started four years ago, the team has also established its own stringent safety procedures and best practices.

OPG's drones can capture some stunning views. Here's the view from the top of the dam at OPG's Otter Rapids GS.

There are currently 17 different types of registered drones of varying sizes in OPG’s fleet, each one capable of performing different tasks for different types of inspections. Many of these drones are equipped with sensors and high-definition cameras capable of detailed zooming and creating high-resolution 3D maps.

The drones can quickly and easily observe hard-to-reach places at structures like dams and powerhouse buildings, gauging their condition and providing bird’s-eye views that would otherwise not be possible.

Tim Trebilcock is the technical lead on the RPAS team and supports the four full-time licensed pilots. A drone hobbyist in his spare time, Trebilcock helped start the program by building a proof-of-concept drone that successfully examined the inside of Darlington’s vacuum building – a structure designed to prevent the release of radioactive material in the event of a leak or accident.

Flying through the building, that original drone’s two cameras captured high-definition, 4K video of the sealed chamber, which was able to show no major issues with the structure.

An operator controls a drone during an inspection at the Abitibi Canyon hydroelectric station.
An operator controls a drone during an inspection at the Abitibi Canyon hydroelectric station.

“We demonstrated this is a much safer approach to doing inspection work,” Trebilcock said. “We also saved a lot of money and time while still doing the inspection right.”

One of the challenges for the IRI team has been keeping up with the technology, which is advancing at a rapid pace.

To stay on top of the latest advances, OPG is working with the University of Toronto to design new drone technology. One of the designs would see drones deployed along spillways at OPG’s hydroelectric stations, alerting the public in the area of the potential dangers around changing water flows.

With the group continuing to grow, IRI is expanding its drone inspection service to customers outside the company through OPG’s subsidiary company, Canadian Nuclear Partners. Recently, the team visited Bruce Power’s nuclear station in Kincardine to inspect buildings with the assistance of a drone.