About 300 electric cooperatives are now using drones for some of their field operations tasks, and that number is expected to grow as unmanned aerial vehicles become more sophisticated. That’s why NRECA is partnering with a top drone service provider to offer utility-specific training designed to help co-ops get more value from their investments in the technology.

“UAVs are far more than just platforms for visual observation,” said Stanley McHann, a NRECA senior research engineer and the association’s chief unmanned aircraft systems pilot. “We’ve developed a five-day skills assessment designed to measure and strengthen pilot competencies, so they can operate their systems safely and efficiently.”

The hands-on course focuses on developing pilot capabilities for operation of a UAV in a complex flight environment. Unmanned aircraft system technology can significantly improve a co-op’s inspection process and improve grid reliability.

NRECA is collaborating with PrecisionHawk, a leader in UAS operations and technology with over a decade’s experience with agricultural, industrial and infrastructure assets, to offer the skills assessments.

The series of small classes begin this month in Buena Vista, Colorado. Additional five-day courses will be scheduled in other locations, contingent upon interest from co-op and other utility UAS pilots.

“Our program is specifically designed to give them hands-on field experience to help them carry out inspections of their transmission and distribution assets with greater confidence and a higher level of safety,” said Robert Henley, PrecisionHawk’s vice president of energy solutions.

The skills assessment is based upon American Society for Testing and Materials and National Institute of Standards and Technology practices for UAS operations. Participants will be encouraged to see the potential of UAVs as platforms for deploying various technologies to assess operational hazards and system damage and identify topographical challenges in soil or drainage that can affect system reliability.

“Drones are proving themselves invaluable in the use of [Red-Green-Blue] sensor data to evaluate vegetation health along utility rights of way,” said McHann. “We’re also using LIDAR, or light detection and ranging sensors, to create high-resolution models of transmission and distribution systems based upon ground elevation within accuracies of four inches.”

The NRECA course is designed to not only improve safety, but also to elevate the overall potential and efficiency of drone operations as alternatives to ground observations or inspections by crews aboard helicopters or fixed wing aircraft, he said.

“We’ve moved a long way from staking technicians with yellow pads and binoculars sitting in pickup trucks looking at poles,” said McHann. “With proper training, a UAV pilot can get comprehensive views of co-op assets from the air. And the data they are able to collect can tell operations management much more than they’d ever see from the ground.”

For more information on this skills assessment opportunity, contact NRECA’s Stanley McHann at 571-302-0479 or Stanley.McHann@nreca.coop.