WASHINGTON — A recent call for service landed an Ameren Illinois crew in flooded former farm fields near Beardstown, searching for the problem with a sub-transmission line in a vast, inaccessible area.

But the linemen brought a tool that is new to the utility company to help quickly locate the source of the problem and get to work on necessary repairs. The drone on the job that day is one of 36 unmanned aircraft systems recently acquired by Ameren Illinois to assist with day-to-day operations.

"The only other means we have to patrol this line is to get a boat and paddle," said Kyle Maxwell, a supervisor of electric operations. "We found the problem — it took us roughly 15 minutes from the time I showed up until the time we found it."

Without the remote perspective of the camera attached to the drone, Maxwell estimated it would have taken five to six hours just to locate the problem that day.

The time savings for a utility company such as Ameren — and the potential to reduce the duration of outages for its customers — is just one example of the expanding applications for commercially available drones as the technology matures.

David Price, vice president and CFO of the Association of Professional Drone Pilots, said the extended battery life and enhanced imaging capabilities of new drones are making them more practical for everyday applications.

Open tracts of land can be surveyed with drones in a fraction of the time it takes to perform the work on the ground, and farmers have discovered entirely new ways to inspect crops.

"It's a rapidly expanding field," Price said. "Everyone's kind of discovering this stuff at the same time. ... Once a week I hear of a new idea."

Ameren eventually plans to have at least one drone at each of its 60 operating centers in the state, said John Barud, senior director of division operations.

The company's infrastructure includes 50,000 miles of transmission and distribution lines and 1.4 million pole structures in Illinois.

At a demonstration event Tuesday at the company's operating center outside Washington, Barud said drones also will improve safety for utility crews as they perform regular maintenance or inspect damage after storms.

"It makes things safer for us, more efficient," Barud said. "It really enhances our ability."

Matt Buedel can be reached at 686-3154 or mbuedel@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @JournoBuedel.