Drone Program Development in the Utility Space

By: Sean McLaughlin and Reed Pitney

Drones are a hot topic these days.  Seen in Hollywood movies, on tech store shelves, and vilified by angry homeowners. One way or another drones have found their way into our modern culture. As with any new technology, adoption into mainstream usage remains slow while organizations figure out how drones can improve safety and efficiency. Often the problem is not how to use the drone, rather it revolves around figuring out how to setup and structure the program and find funding for it. A few Northwest utilities have figured out how to set up their program and are reaping the benefits of this time saving, safety improving technology. Many have not yet. Not because of lack of desire but because of the time needed to research the right solution for the individual company and find funding.  Often there is a perception that a drone is expensive and without a good business case, funding will be difficult to find. Fortunately, a good drone program doesn’t have to cost a lot and it is relatively easy to create a strong business case to find that funding.

The three Ds

Determining one to three potential drone usage opportunities is a great place to start. The 3 Ds (the dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs) are a helpful tool in determining these. Dull jobs can range from sending multiple crews out to hike miles of feeder line to taking the time to set up a bucket truck and control traffic to inspect the top of a pole. The dirty jobs are never fun and any way to keep a crew from engaging in them will be gladly received. Hiking in deep snow to inspect a substation after a storm is never fun for anyone. The dangerous jobs are the easiest metric to determine a use case for. This can range from inspecting a pole in the middle of a river to inspecting miles of line after a winter storm. Once a usage is determined the next question is “How can a drone be used to improve the safety metrics here?” Is it possible to get the same information, the same view, by standing safely on the ground while an unmanned aerial system flies a camera to the item or area to be inspected? If so, then why risk personnel unnecessarily until the need to perform repairs is determined.

Real world drone use

There are a number of utilities in the Northwest using a drone program to mitigate risk and increase efficiency. West Oregon Electric Cooperative in Vernonia, Ore., has been using drone technology for a little over a year. They use the drones to inspect poles, pull line, and to asses circuit damage. The primary drone use is for inspecting over 20 miles of backup feeder line. Before energizing, the line needs to be checked for encroaching vegetation and any other problems. This used to take multiple crews a day or two to complete by hiking the remote lines. Now it can be completed by a few linemen in a couple hours with a drone. Operations Manager Don Rose like to use drones for efficiency and safety. “We use them to cross rivers and creeks with string to later pull a rope followed by a conductor. This is much more efficient and safer than using the string gun we have used in the past.” He goes on to say “We have also used the drone to assess the damage to a circuit in a cross country region so the crews will know what material is needed to complete the repairs.”

Nespelem Valley Electric Cooperative in Nespelem, Wash., uses their drone for line inspection and makes them available to any line crew needing very close video feed if a visual inspection turns up a potential problem. “They are a very useful tool we now have available to our crews,” said NVEC GM Dan Simpson. Recently during a visual inspection, it appeared that a cross arm was showing signs of wear, so they flew the drone up close to determine the extent of the problem. When viewed from close proximity, it was clear the cross arm was split and needed to be replaced. Instead of suffering an outage when it broke, they scheduled a replacement during normal business hours.

Timberland Helicopters based out of Ashland, Ore., provides aerial solutions to a number of utilities in the western region. With a large fleet of drones, they do everything from light inspection to pulling line across rivers and canyons. Recently they were contacted by PacifiCorp to provide a line pull solution. The utility needed to pull line across the Umpqua River, but the location was right next to a school. This was right after the Umpqua Community College shooting in 2015 and the utility didn’t want to use their traditional method of firing a line across the river. Timberland used one of their larger drone platforms to pull the line multiple times across the river safely and quickly allowing the utility to move on to the next job without disrupting the community.

General Pacific is working with Tonbo Drones on the exciting possibility of using an Encoder Reader Transmitter (ERT) drone platform to read electric and water metering systems from the air. The main advantage of taking to the air for meter reading is the quantity of meters read in a very short time frame. The ERT signal can be disrupted and diminished by obstacles on the ground causing systems that utilize readers at or near ground level to not work at optimum levels. Preliminary tests show that elevating the ERT reading platform 180 feet off the ground increased ERT reads around 1400%. If flown at the FAA determined flight ceiling of 400 feet a drone could be flown in a predetermined route to pick up reads that would normally require a vehicle rolled miles out of the way to capture. This also will make it possible to implement prepaid billing without installing a full AMI system making prepaid billing a possibility for smaller utilities.

Another increasingly popular use is inspecting solar arrays. More utilities are installing community solar farms and when the time comes to inspect for dead cells and efficiency prior to the end of the manufacturer’s warranty a thermal camera on a drone can determine hotspots and dead cells. This allows the utility to change them out at the cost of labor to maintain peak efficiency.

In the utility industry there are many use cases for drones that are being developed every day. The above usages are just the most common. Over the next few years there will be more and more usage cases as ingenious minds look to improve the way utilities do business.

Choosing a drone

Once a use case for implementing this incredible technology is identified and management agrees to start a drone program, the work begins.  Questions about which drone to initially purchase, who will fly it, what training they will need and how to legally do so need to be answered. When purchasing a drone consider that they can be split into two categories in the utility industry.  Those used for reconnaissance and those used for payload. 

Reconnaissance is just a quick look at something be it a pole or section of line.  It might be in a high place, or across a canyon, or inside a dangerous environment. A small drone with a broadcasting camera is all you need to make critical decisions.  Models like the DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise are lightweight, pack well, have reasonable (25 min per battery) flight times and broadcast a high-quality video signal short distances for excellent images. Cost for a reconnaissance drone is low so most utilities will purchase one of these as part of their initial program.

Payload drones cover everything else.  While they are still used for reconnaissance purposes their real strength is carrying a sensor of some type (lidar, corona, gas, IR, etc.), pulling line or carrying an item from point A to point B.  This is the workhorse side of the equation. Running a section of right of way with an autonomous drone equipped with a lidar unit is a reality today and can quickly pay for itself with cost savings over flying a helicopter for the same purpose.

A great way to figure out the correct drone is to lean on aerial solution providers to discuss mission requirements and bring a number of drones to the utility for testing. This method often makes drone selection quick and easy when utility crews can stand next to a seasoned drone team and discuss the utility requirements and see how different drone platforms perform various jobs. An added benefit is they can work side by side with utility crews to train them on best practices for things like how to fly aircraft in the wire environment or capturing usable images during an insulator inspection.

Cost is another consideration during the development process. Most programs can be started with one drone and one operator. The cost to purchase a DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual is right around $3000 with another $400 set aside for extra batteries and propellers. The Part 107 exam costs $150 to take but the selected pilot would benefit from an in-depth exam prep class that not only will prepare them for the exam but also prepare them to safely fly the drone and decrease the utilities liability. Cost for an all-inclusive course is around $1200. It would also be beneficial to provide basic flight training which can be another $600. For less than $6000, a utility can start a basic drone program.

Engaging the legal department during this process will ensure they are ready to go when the first drone arrives. Of principal concern will be liability.  The good news is that the insurance industry has become savvy about drone coverage.  Most major insurance carriers should have ready access to insurance coverage for drone operations.  The one requirement every insurance company will have is the FAA Part 107 Certification.

Certification and training

The Part 107 Certification is the FAA certificate granting commercial flight privileges to Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) pilots.  Without this certificate the utility and pilot bear the full liability if something happens when the drone is in flight. The HR department will need to be engaged as well since the certificate needs to be kept up to date. Every 2 years the Part 107 exam will need to be taken and passed. Keeping track of certification in order to ensure compliance can become complex the larger an organization is.  

The process to become a UAS pilot is not complicated. All that is needed is to take and pass the $150 FAA written exam every 2 years.  The exam itself is the difficult part. It is not an easy exam. Fortunately, there are training organizations like the NW Drone Academy that can quickly and efficiently bring a novice up to speed with FAA requirements for the Part 107 exam.  Through a two-day intensive course anyone will be ready to take and pass the exam. It is important to note that not every type of mission is allowable under Part 107 regulations.  Things like flying at night, flying beyond visual line of sight, and drones weighing over 55 pounds require special permission from the FAA.  This is accomplished through Certificates of Authorization and Waivers.  In the past filing the proper paperwork in the right format and having it approved was a lengthy process.  In some cases, nine months to a year was common place.  The FAA has done an incredible job of adapting to the drone surge.  Innovations like the LAANC system (Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability) provide access to controlled airspace near airports through real-time processing of airspace authorizations below approved altitudes in controlled airspace. If approved pilots receive their authorization in real-time.  The day is fast approaching where a lineman will be able to arrive at a location, notify the FAA through a LAANC application on their smartphone, then immediately send a recon drone over the nearest hill for a Beyond-Visual-Line-Of-Sight (BVLOS) flight to check out a downed line.

Once a drone program is in place, training will become important to the overall success of the program. Let experts teach the hard-earned lessons to save the utility time and expense in learning how to safely fly specific missions. Training can start at the basics of drone flight and control, to flying up close to critical pieces of equipment like 500KV lines in the complex live wire environment. As with all complex skills, ongoing training will be important to keep drone operators fresh and capable of successfully completing all utility missions.

An important point to keep in mind when it comes to using drones is that flying them is only 20% of the job.  As a professional pilot there are requirements surrounding preflight checks and actions. Then post-flight responsibilities to the aircraft and the collected data, including post processing and report generation. This is another area where a service provider can be of benefit.  Working side by side with a company that provides drone services can be a great way to learn the best way to complete the rest of the mission.

This is an exciting time in the utility industry! Rarely are there new technologies that increase safety while decreasing costs. Drones are improving utility operations around the world, making operations safer and more efficient.  If a drone program still seems out of reach or complicated the best start might be hiring a licensed and experienced operator to do a proof of concept mission for the utility. No matter where the utility is at in the process, know that a drone program is attainable and cost effective for every utility that wants to increase safety and efficiency.