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Ameren deploys ‘safer, quicker’ drones for help with power restoration after Missouri tornadoes


Drone footage above courtesy of Ameren Missouri.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — In the aftermath of the calamitous storms this week, Ameren officials used drones to survey the damage — a safer and quicker way to restore power to the 16,000 customers who lost services, officials said.

The utility company began utilizing drones as part of its “arsenal” of tools a little more than three years ago, Chip Webb, division director of the Central Missouri Division for Ameren Missouri, said. Since, Ameren has expanded its use of drones to conduct routine inspections, monitor infrastructure at plants, and aid with storm response.

“When we have an event, a storm, the first thing we do is assess the damage. Typically that means, before drones, a lineman would go out and walk from pole to pole to pole to understand what the damage is, what it looks like, and what it’s going to take to repair it,” Webb told The Missouri Times. “Now, we can take a drone and one person, the pilot, can stand in one place and look at 30 poles in one direction and 30 poles in another direction and get good video we can take back to the crews to give them something to use to understand what they’re dealing with, what the material needs are.”

“It allows us to get that done much quicker than we ever could before — and more importantly, much safer,” he said. “It keeps our crews from having to walk on a lot of debris and terrain issues and all kinds of dangerous hazards they deal with.”

Ameren crews work to restore power following a devastating tornado that tore through Jefferson City late Wednesday night. (PROVIDED/AMEREN MISSOURI)

A devastating EF-3 tornado tore through Jefferson City just before midnight Wednesday — miraculously sparing lives but leaving a trail of cratered homes and mangled power lines in its wake. Storms and tornadoes also tore through southwestern Missouri, leaving three people dead in Golden City in Barton County.  

A few drone operating crews deployed to Jefferson City and Eldon, Missouri — also heavily affected by the storms — this week to “divide and conquer,” Webb said.

“The actual operation and maintenance isn’t too expensive,” Webb said, adding the drones are equipped with “specialized” cameras with high-resolution, infrared technology, and heat imaging to give the operators and pilots the ability to survey a wide range of damage.

“It’s a very innovative technology and we’re continuing to look for opportunities” to use it,” Webb said. “There’s a lot of applications and opportunities to explore.”

When the pilots aren’t needed for restoration work as a result of the storm, they are able to use the drones to conduct routine inspections while they’re in the area, Webb said.

About 16,000 customers lost power because of the storms with approximately half that number located in the Central Missouri area — around Eldon and Jefferson City. The other outages were reported around St. Louis City and County and St. Charles County. By midday Friday, a little more than 3,000 customers — just in Central Missouri — remained without power, Webb said.

Officials hope to fully restore power in the Eldon area by the end of Friday. Jefferson City should be restored by Saturday, officials said.

“The biggest challenge was the sheer amount of damage that comes with a tornado,” said Webb. “We estimate that we [have to replace] 200 poles and are looking to get that done in about two days. It’s a pretty major effort, but we’re getting close.”

In addition to linemen who work in the area, about 250 other linemen from around the state were dispatched to help in the aftermath of the storm, according to Webb, in addition to other “behind the scenes” workers.