Take Flight

Three Pillars for Making a Successful Drone Program

by Brian Borkowski and Russ Metzler, Asymmetric Technologies

Drone inspecting transmission structure.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as of November 2015, had granted approval for more than 2,100 applicants to fly unmanned aerial systems (UAS), also known as drones, for commercial purposes. The grants have gone to companies ranging from cinematographers to real estate marketers. According to the FAA’s website, the agency also has issued these same grants for “new and novel approaches to inspecting” utility towers and lines. Like any new technology, the marketplace is awash with stories of how drones can be used. While some utilities are seeing the benefits of drone programs, not all drones and the programs behind them are equal. It is critical for utility managers to ask the right questions when considering a drone program.

What Can Drones Accomplish?

Utilities are beginning to send drones to do the dirty, dangerous and, in some cases, expensive tasks that humans now perform. Drones bring a speed and volume of data that was heretofore impossible. Drones can collect high-definition video and images, as well as thermal images, of transmission structures and transmission lines, solar panels, power plants and wind turbines. In addition, emerging applications for drones entail multi-spectral imaging of solar and wind turbine blades. For most electric transmission engineers and wind operators, however, the best first use of drones is reducing the amount of climbing-related inspections and enhancing maintenance activities.

Drone’s view of insulator damage.

Any remote sensing technology, whether a drone or something yet to be invented, is simply a tool to assist linemen and engineers. If, for instance, an engineer needs to identify the serial number of a part located high on a transmission tower, a drone can spare a crew the time and cost of climbing an additional structure. OSHA’s tall-tower climbing regulations now require that teams are capable of recovering a fallen climber on site, so crews have grown from two people to three. That spells greater costs and coordination. Drones make it possible to spare the crew unnecessary work and identify the correct tower or part before a climb begins. Simply put, drones extend a utility’s reach.

Putting Drones Into Practice

AEP and Con Edison are two utilities among others that have flown UAS demos to inspect their infrastructure. For both utilities, drones allow them to obtain reliable, routine and high-quality information about their assets. Managers at these utilities say drones enable preventative maintenance programs as well as reduce time and costs for emergency maintenance.

3pillars

Before investing in a drone program, utility managers must understand the government regulations, operations and technology.

Con Edison typically sends its crews to inspect towers and feeders looking for signs of wear or damage on cotter keys, static shoes and other equipment that can lead to outages. Top-level inspections require crews to climb the towers. Second-level inspections rely on ground crews making use of spotting scopes. Con Edison sees drones as a safe way to increase the inspection rate of towers and capture detail that ground crews could never see, and enhance operation and maintenance excellence. For AEP and Con Edison, the drones are a way to inspect as-built structures and document a baseline for changes that will occur to the infrastructure and landscape around the towers.

A drone can in a few minutes of flying time pinpoint a faulty device. And, while a crew must often climb a tower to make a repair, a drone program minimizes the amount of climbing that crews must do for inspection. According to Con Edison, enhanced safety and efficiency are good reasons to get a drone program off the ground.

Before a utility’s first drone takes flight, managers should decide what kind (and amount) of data they want to collect, so their investment leads to actionable data that will help them maintain and improve their infrastructure. For example, Con Edison has collected hundreds of megabytes of data on the condition of individual towers. As this data begins pouring in, managers need a plan for tapping and securing this largely visual information.

The Three Pillars of a Successful Drone Program

Before investing in a drone program, utility managers must understand the government regulations, operations and technology.

Understanding Government Regulations

The FAA requires commercial drone operators to have a Section 333 exemption to fly a drone. Even with the exemption, the FAA limits what utilities, or any other commercial operator, can do with drones. For example, current FAA regulations state that commercial operators cannot fly over a populated area. Therefore, inspecting downed distribution lines or laterals after an outage is not yet possible. In addition, part of Section 333 requires operators to produce flight logs, safety checks, training reports and a catalogue of maintenance on their drones.

Piloting a Drone

In spite of the name UAS, an unmanned drone requires a pilot. The pilot must have at least 20 hours of flying time and hold a sport pilot license. The pilot must know how to keep a drone running next to high power lines for up to 30 minutes, as he and a team manage variable wind conditions and collect actionable data. An experienced drone pilot must fastidiously adhere to a preflight checklist and run through a rehearsal prior to an actual inspection of a tower.

Some drone makers will claim that in an emergency, their drone has an autonomous return-home function. Without a good pre-flight rehearsal, however, a GPS glitch might send a drone tens or hundreds of miles in the wrong direction if the last mission the UAS ran was not cleared from its memory. For example, think of the challenge of launching a drone from a moving boat to perform inspections across a body of water. A company might say its drone has a return-to-home function in the event of an emergency. On a moving boat, however, “home” is changing minute by minute. In other words, autonomy in drones is not yet as smart as it needs to be. Good preparation and pilot awareness, therefore, is critical.

Maintenance is required to keep a drone running. Someone inside a utility (or a contractor) has to understand the drone’s capabilities, repair schedule and limitations to keep it ready to fly when needed.

What is Your Drone Made Of?

The real power of a drone comes when a utility’s engineers and linemen see and understand the aircraft’s capability. In fact, this is the stage when Con Edison began thinking of additional applications for its drones, which drone operators would not have had the experience to suggest. The drone should be industrial-grade quality; it should be able to withstand variable wind conditions and accomplish a 30-minute sortie. In addition, it should have a carbon monoframe and be equipped with an electromechanical shield.

While some drones can stay aloft for nearly 90 minutes, it is not practical to run a mission that long under the current regulations. First, asking a pilot to stay focused on a drone for this long is physically taxing and unsafe. And second, it is important to save battery life for contingencies and emergencies.

A lot of the early adopters of drones turned to universities that were allowed to fly before the recently granted FAA exemptions became available for commercial drone operators. Some utilities paid universities to research drones and develop UAS to overcome the limitations of climbing and ground inspections. The drone technology developed by many universities happened in a “silo,” however, without input from either pilots or the industries with experience. For example, one scholarly institution built a drone with a cage around it to protect it from hitting a power line it was to inspect. Although the drone could fly, a cage is hardly aerodynamic and, in fact, adds extra weight, which reduces flight time. The companies that exist to make drones, however, have to generate a profit. So they identify or develop UAS that maximize operational efficiency. Commercial drone providers also have the advantage of working with a variety of customers to incorporate feedback from across an industry.

Structuring a Drone Program

When people begin exploring a drone program, some managers feel they should undertake it by themselves. As utilities consider what is involved in launching and maintaining such a program, however, they tend to amend the initial plan to include having a third party teach employees how to run a drone program and then turn over operation of the drones to the utility. Some utilities decide the greatest cost savings and ease of use comes from outsourcing the pilot and leasing the drone. For such clients this includes hiring a vendor’s pilot, sensor operator and visual observer along with assigning the drone crew a safety person from the utility.

Obvious jobs for a drone program are inspections of transmission towers, generation plants, wind turbines and solar cells. For example, a drone equipped with a thermal camera can scan an entire solar cell during the course of a 30-minute flight, whereas a human would need a day to complete the same job. At generation plants, plant managers often coordinate maintenance inspections with a planned outage and erect scaffolding to see the equipment (e.g., boilers) that a drone can reach safely in a few minutes.

As UAS technology and the market for drones mature, almost all utilities will consider obtaining data provided by drones in one shape or another. Ensuring that the data from a drone arrives in a manager’s hands in a timely, accurate and reliable way requires balancing regulations, operations and technology.

Some drone makers will claim that in an emergency, their drone has an autonomous return-home function. Without a good pre-flight rehearsal, however, a GPS glitch might send a drone tens or hundreds of miles in the wrong direction if the last mission the UAS ran was not cleared from its memory. For example, think of the challenge of launching a drone from a moving boat to perform inspections across a body of water. A company might say its drone has a return-to-home function in the event of an emergency. On a moving boat, however, “home” is changing minute by minute. In other words, autonomy in drones is not yet as smart as it needs to be. Good preparation and pilot awareness, therefore, is critical.

Maintenance is required to keep a drone running. Someone inside a utility (or a contractor) has to understand the drone’s capabilities, repair schedule and limitations to keep it ready to fly when needed.

What is Your Drone Made Of?

The real power of a drone comes when a utility’s engineers and linemen see and understand the aircraft’s capability. In fact, this is the stage when Con Edison began thinking of additional applications for its drones, which drone operators would not have had the experience to suggest. The drone should be industrial-grade quality; it should be able to withstand variable wind conditions and accomplish a 30-minute sortie. In addition, it should have a carbon monoframe and be equipped with an electromechanical shield.

While some drones can stay aloft for nearly 90 minutes, it is not practical to run a mission that long under the current regulations. First, asking a pilot to stay focused on a drone for this long is physically taxing and unsafe. And second, it is important to save battery life for contingencies and emergencies.

A lot of the early adopters of drones turned to universities that were allowed to fly before the recently granted FAA exemptions became available for commercial drone operators. Some utilities paid universities to research drones and develop UAS to overcome the limitations of climbing and ground inspections. The drone technology developed by many universities happened in a “silo,” however, without input from either pilots or the industries with experience. For example, one scholarly institution built a drone with a cage around it to protect it from hitting a power line it was to inspect. Although the drone could fly, a cage is hardly aerodynamic and, in fact, adds extra weight, which reduces flight time. The companies that exist to make drones, however, have to generate a profit. So they identify or develop UAS that maximize operational efficiency. Commercial drone providers also have the advantage of working with a variety of customers to incorporate feedback from across an industry.

Structuring a Drone Program

When people begin exploring a drone program, some managers feel they should undertake it by themselves. As utilities consider what is involved in launching and maintaining such a program, however, they tend to amend the initial plan to include having a third party teach employees how to run a drone program and then turn over operation of the drones to the utility. Some utilities decide the greatest cost savings and ease of use comes from outsourcing the pilot and leasing the drone. For such clients this includes hiring a vendor’s pilot, sensor operator and visual observer along with assigning the drone crew a safety person from the utility.

Obvious jobs for a drone program are inspections of transmission towers, generation plants, wind turbines and solar cells. For example, a drone equipped with a thermal camera can scan an entire solar cell during the course of a 30-minute flight, whereas a human would need a day to complete the same job. At generation plants, plant managers often coordinate maintenance inspections with a planned outage and erect scaffolding to see the equipment (e.g., boilers) that a drone can reach safely in a few minutes.

As UAS technology and the market for drones mature, almost all utilities will consider obtaining data provided by drones in one shape or another. Ensuring that the data from a drone arrives in a manager’s hands in a timely, accurate and reliable way requires balancing regulations, operations and technology.

Authors

Brian Borkowski is the founder, president and CEO of Asymmetric Technologies, which provides remote sensing technology, including drones, for the utility industry. Prior to founding Asymmetric Technologies, he served as a U.S. Army combat officer in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the Army’s Engineer Research and Development Center. He can be reached at brian@asymmetric.com.

Russ Metzler is the director of UAS Services for Asymmetric Technologies, where he provides flight services, consulting, drone program development and training to commercial customers with a focus on POUs. He is a certified project management professional and served as a U.S. Army infantry officer. He can be reached at metzler@asymmetric.com.

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