This month's question: What impact will drones have on co-op operations over the next 10 years?

Answer: I know there is a lot of anticipation right now around how the FAA is going to change its beyond-line-of-sight rules for utility drones. There’s no question that that will have a huge impact on how we’re able to use and grow this technology. But beyond that, I think the most important development for co-ops will be the increasing affordability and accessibility of these systems. When large drones with longer ranges and higher payload capacity start to become more affordable, and as the price of the cameras and sensors and other equipment come down as well, it will effectively bring everyone into this space. At SDCEA, we’re discovering a variety of uses for drone technology. It started with inspections and getting data into the GIS/mapping and work order systems. In addition to our routine maintenance inspections, we’re prioritizing flight plans with historical outage data and using that as a tool for system improvement. Additionally, we’re inspecting new construction ROWs, and vegetation management areas for inventory, monitoring and quality assurance, albeit on a much smaller scale than most of the larger co-ops. I think we’ll see a lot more functionality over the next 10 years as more and more co-ops utilize this technology and keep coming up with positive solutions.

Answer: When we started our drone program at Southwest Arkansas Electric in 2018, my vision was that someday, an outage would look something like the following: The AMI/SCADA systems report an outage to OMS; OMS dispatches a drone from the substation; the drone relays video, LiDAR, GPS coordinates, etc., back for damage assessment; OMS notifies dispatch or crews with location and equipment information needed to make repairs. Technology and legislation still have work to do before this scenario is feasible. But it’s not far away. Essentially, I think the impact drones will have on our co-op over the next 10 years will depend on how the Federal Aviation Administration changes its beyond-visual-line-of-sight rules. With more leeway in these rules, I could see line inspections and damage assessment vastly improving over the manual process we use today. Continued improvements in artificial intelligence and machine learning will help turn the data that drones are so great at capturing into unprecedented system awareness. Will drones move beyond data collection and be able to deliver equipment and assist in construction and repair? Perhaps they become part of our security team or a first responder to a man-down call. It’s an exciting time, and I expect we’ll look back in 10 years—or even five years—and say, “Wow! I was not expecting drones to be able to perform that task.”

Answer: What I’m looking forward to most with our drone program over the next decade is the incredible advances we can expect to see in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Vendors are putting enormous resources into these computing capabilities, and it’s only a matter of time before their use becomes commonplace at electric co-ops (and frankly, everywhere). AI will deliver a quantum leap to our ability to process and make sense of the enormous amounts of data that drones provide. UAS manufacturers have made great strides in the range, payload capacity and variety of sensors and cameras that can be mounted on drones. And we can safely assume that we will have MANY more drones in the field over the next 10 years. Those developments are great for operational awareness, but they also mean huge increases in the amount of data we’ll need to process. As AI becomes more capable and accessible in the coming years, we’ll be able to use software to quickly analyze millions of images and sensor readings to gain unprecedented, real-time visibility into the condition and operation of our system. That’s music to the ears of a co-op engineer. But even better, it will have a profound impact on reliability and ultimately will help us better serve our members.

Answer: The biggest development I see coming for utility drones is a significant change in Federal Aviation Administration rules that limit their use to within line of sight. I understand the privacy and safety concerns that FAA had in mind when they made those rules. But the sophistication of drone systems—and the pilots who use them—have advanced to the point where those rules are unnecessary and are inhibiting progress. I think the FAA recognizes this, and NRECA's Government Relations team and its work with the Edison Electric Institute and American Public Power Association on this issue have been very effective in making the case for relaxing the regulations. FAA published a Beyond Visual Line of Sight Rules Committee report earlier this year that, if adopted, will significantly open up UAS flight operations and bring a level of system awareness and data collection that I truly believe will revolutionize our industry. The other thing I think will happen, probably within the next five years, is that every single co-op (and IOU and muni) will be using drones and other robotics in some capacity. And the data and imagery they will supply will have profound impacts on the industry's safety, reliability and planning. It already is! These are truly momentous times for utility drone advocates like me, and I couldn't be more excited to see what comes next.