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Drones Help Utilities to Maximize Limited Resources


As operational challenges multiply, some utilities have found drones to be an effective tool to optimize limited resources and maintain safe and reliable service.

Drones can be used for a variety of purposes, including inspections, security, and maintenance operations, but “broadly speaking, they help utilities take the resources they have today in terms of manpower and budget and maximize those resources further,” said Christina Park, senior director of utility strategy at Skydio, a drone manufacturer based in San Mateo, California, said.

Park previously worked in asset management and strategic operations at the New York Power Authority where her departments looked at technologies such as robotics, sensors and analytics to solve utility problems.

Another Skydio executive, Corey Hitchcock, worked in the Southern Company’s R&D department as a UAS pilot prior to his current role as a Utility Solutions Specialist at Skydio. Hitchcock also worked as a troubleman and transmission lineman at Georgia Power, a Southern subsidiary.

Historically, there are many utilities that have used drones, either hiring drone service providers that use professional pilots or starting dedicated aviation units with their utility.

But Skydio’s drones are in a different class. They use artificial intelligence to interpret the visual data coming from the six fisheye cameras that serve as the drone’s “eyes.” The drone then uses AI to interpret the visual data and to map out the terrain in which the drone is flying, enabling it to navigate that terrain while avoiding obstacles. That obstacle avoidance feature means the user cannot run into something, even if they try. 

In addition, Skydio’s drones are unaffected by electromagnetic interference, meaning it can fly near metal and energized electrical structures and be unaffected EMI.

Skydio is resistant to electromagnetic interference, enabling close proximity monitoring in energized substations

“What Skydio allows you to do is to put the drone in your frontline workers’ hands so that the person who needs to look at the data is the person who's going to capture the data, and get their eyes on it more quickly,” said Park.

“With climate change, weather patterns are changing and natural disasters are increasing,” Park said. In addition, some utilities are finding that they need to raise rates and an aging workforce is retiring. Combined, these factors “are making leadership realize that, it's just not sustainable to keep doing things the way that they've always done it. And that's leading them to technology.”

In the last several years, leadership has begun to see the business value of adopting some of these technologies and, at the field level, people have seen that they can do their jobs more easily, more safely, and reduce some of the burdensome, arduous or dangerous tasks they have to do, Park said, adding that “particularly in the last couple of years, I would say, people's willingness to investigate and integrate technology has opened up.”

To date, over 150 utilities are using Skydio technology, ranging from large investor-owned utilities such as Dominion Energy and Southern Company, to cooperatives such as Arkansas Valley Electric Co-op and public power utilities such as NYPA.

The key is that the company does not just sell hardware, it helps clients use the hardware and the data the drones collect and integrate it into their systems, said Hitchcock.

With their obstacle avoidance technology, Skydio’s drones make drone technology accessible for a wide range of utilities and employees, noted Tommy Conley, Senior Manager, Energy Marketing, at Skydio. No special skills are necessary. It is a new skill, he said, but not much more difficult than learning the controls on a bucket truck or, for that matter, an early generation video game. In addition, he said, Skydio can lend support in securing the needed regulatory permits.

To pilot a drone for commercial purposes, an operator needs a Federal Aviation Administration Part 107 remote pilot license, a written test that is not very difficult to get, Hitchcock said.

In addition, if the drone is going to be flown beyond visual line of sight, the FAA requires a BVLOS waiver. What the FAA is looking for in that application can be difficult to understand, but Park said Skydio has a regulatory services team staffed with experts familiar with FAA requirements to help clients navigate the process.

The utilities that have adopted Skydio drones, use them for a variety of purposes. They are used to inspect substations for faults or potential faults by looking at a station from many angles, providing detailed visual data, including close-up photography and three dimensional photogrammetry, as well as thermal imaging to detect heat anomalies.

Skydio's Remote Ops platform enables real-time substation inspection from a web browser

Drones can also be used to enhance substation security, by flying regular or even random perimeter patrols or by being dispatched when a breach is detected.

Similarly, drones can be used to inspect transmission or distribution lines, obviating the need for repeated inspections from a lineman in a bucket. At an estimated cost of about $5,500 per truck roll, a drone could pay for itself quickly.

Inspecting transmission lines with drones can reduce maintenance costs and improve worker safety compared with the costs and risks involved in truck rolls and helicopter inspections.

“Basically, drones can translate into cost savings for a utility by maximizing productivity from existing headcount and budget and performing more inspections, allowing management to make smarter decisions about where they put their maintenance dollars,” Park said.

“If you think about it, the payoff for using the drones, is they are a workforce multiplier,” Park said. “With the same workforce, you can accomplish exponentially more work.” For instance, she said, with tower inspections, typically “you could do three tower inspections in a day. With drones, you could inspect 33 towers in a day. And where a substation could be inspected by two employees in eight hours, with a drone it would be about twice as fast, taking about four hours. That means you don't need to hire more people in order to meet your compliance requirements.” That also means drones can help keep rates stable because they can lower costs, she said.

Going beyond routine or planned inspections, drones can also help put condition-based maintenance within reach for a variety of utilities. Any utility has a huge stock of assets. In most cases, though, making an inventory of their condition is physically impossible to do using existing staff.

“While most utilities see the value in condition-based maintenance, there seems to be this huge chasm because they're looking at it through the traditional paradigm,” Park said. “There are just not enough people or trucks or work hours to inspect all the assets. But if they shift the paradigm a little, they could see that they could use technology to bridge that gap. It's not difficult, if you leverage the right partners and the right technology.”

Skydio has structured its business so customers can buy a drone with or without a service contract and customers can add services – for integration help or regulatory assistance, for example. “It’s all defined in the contract,” Park said. “Typically, the relationship doesn’t end but begins when the drones change hands," she said.

“When we give a customer the drone, they have a team around them dedicated to them to ensure their success and provide support,” Park said. “We will work with them to make sure the drones work as expected, but also to arm them with the knowledge and expertise of people who have done this before to make sure that they are thinking about it the right way.”

“We are a medium sized start-up,” said Conley, “and we live and die by the success of our customers. Our success in the market hinges on our customers’ success with our drones.”

In recent news, NYPA in April reported that the Federal Aviation Administration had granted NYPA license to fly unmanned aircraft systems beyond the visual line of sight of the pilot in command in a one-mile radius in any unrestricted, or Class G, airspace without prior approval.

The approved waiver expands the Power Authority’s ability to use drones to monitor and inspect its transmission, generation and canal assets throughout the state.

NYPA noted that the waiver was obtained with the help of Skydio. The waiver authorizes operations through 2028 and is specific to Skydio drones.

For more information about Skydio, visit the company’s website.




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