When folks at Central Electric Cooperative moved into their new headquarters in Stillwater, Oklahoma, a few years ago, they didn’t have to worry about who their neighbors would be. Surrounding the building will be Innovation Point, a planned development designed by the co-op that will offer commercial and residential tenants a contained, micro-grid-powered community with high-tech amenities and services.

One part of the campus that’s already up and running is a technology center that includes a 21st century print facility. In the shop, a dozen or so 3-D printers hum away, fabricating everything from truck parts to pole tags. “We keep them busy all day long,” says David Swank, the co-op’s CEO.

What keeps them the busiest, though, is building, maintaining, and equipping drones.

Central Electric is a co-op pioneer in putting unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to work on its grid, with plans to station a drone and its own ScaleData launch pod in each of its 22 substations and on many of its line trucks. At the substations, the flying robots will hunker down in the pods while a robotic arm changes and charges batteries between frequent inspection flights along the co-op’s 4,000 miles of line.

With each flight, the 21,000-meter co-op is developing a fuller algorithmic database of its distribution grid when it’s functioning perfectly. That “machine learning” is a big step toward an automated maintenance and control system that can spot anomalies and potential faults before they trigger more significant problems, Swank says.

“You have the opportunity to take data from multiple databases and bring it together,” he says. “Then you’re creating not only algorithms, but identifying where potential problems are at on the system. And that means the greater the chances are that we’re going to identify and restore a problem quicker.”

Central Electric is well on its way to the next big thing in utility operations, according to Brian Sloboda, a program manager for NRECA’s Business & Technology Strategies group.

“The thing that’s on the horizon, the big game-changer, is that several vendors are working on a system that will automatically provide an assessment of the distribution system,” Sloboda says. “Having an automatic system that can look at the local grid and send you an email saying, ‘Here’s something I’ve found,’ lets you just see the problem, not the 99.9 percent of the images of stuff that’s working well.

“It could be something that’s a couple of months away, or it could be 24 months away.”

Or it could be here already, as Sloboda has reason to expect. As he makes those comments, he’s fiddling with a drone on his desk—one that was custom 3-D printed in Central Electric’s print shop.

Some obstacles remain, to be sure.

Battery technology needs to catch up with the utility engineers’ plans for drone deployment, allowing the units to carry more equipment on longer flights. Regulatory limitations on drone use will have to be adjusted, relaxing requirements that forbid missions beyond a human operator’s line of sight so that longer-range autonomous flights are possible.

And finally, the drones’ visual system must advance. Whether it’s called “machine learning,” “computer vision,” or “automatic image recognition,” the system’s ability to detect faults and failures is key to its value in utility operations.

“It’s this machine-learning algorithm that can automatically detect if something works or if it’s broke,” Sloboda says. “Otherwise, you’ve got to have some poor guy sitting somewhere looking at hours and hours of video footage. That’s not going to be a fun job.”

System of Knowledge

Every time one of Central Electric’s home-printed drones makes an inspection run, it’s building system knowledge that will help overcome the learning hurdle.

“The more the machine sees, the more poles that it sees, the more line that it sees, the more it will know what things should look like,” Sloboda says. “So it will become better at finding the trouble spots.”

Swank sees parallels in the pro- cess to training a new apprentice lineworker to become a crew leader or operations manager. Machine learning simulates the long, deep experience with a co-op distribution system that gives a human lineworker a feel for what makes that system tick.

“It is in many ways the same,” Swank says.

Thanks to its careful development of ties with Oklahoma State University and Meridian Technology Center, Central Electric is expanding the ways humans and drones learn and work together.

All of the co-op’s linemen are or soon will be licensed as drone pilots, thanks to curriculum changes at the tech center. And working with the university, the co-op is turning its substations into something out of a science fiction novel.

Those launch pods, for instance, are 5-by-8-foot sheds where the drones do more than recharge between flights. Wall-mounted screens will allow linemen or other pilots to see what the drone is seeing as well as keep track of its flight path, while other screens will keep track of local weather conditions. When the drones are carrying 360-degree cameras, operators will be able to scan the units’ surroundings with virtual- reality glasses.

A robotic arm in the pod will be able to replace depleted batteries with fresh ones and change the payload depending on the job at hand. Infrared cameras are expected to be the workhorse of drone trips, Swank says, but they could be outfitted with gripper arms of their own to make small physical adjustments or remove branches from lines.

Business Opportunities

3-D printers at the co-op’s tech center slash the cost of new drones and dramatically reduce down time when units break in the field. Those printers not only build the drones and necessary replacement parts; they also fabricate components used in the launch pods.

Swank credits an enthusiastic, imaginative staff and his co-op’s close working relationship with Oklahoma State and Meridian Technology Center for Central Electric’s blistering pace of tech advances.

“It’s the people we have who are doing all of this. They’re just amazing,” he says.

Swank also has been amazed at the additional business opportunities his co-op’s forays into drone operations have opened. Daniel Thrasher, Central Electric’s vice president for business development, parlayed a booming local interest in the technology into an option for tenants at Innovation Pointe.

At one of Meridian’s technology conferences, Thrasher says, “what we found was most of the people were interested in agriculture uses, like counting cattle or analyzing crops.” Not surprisingly, a lot of those people can be found on the co-op’s lines.

Some of them had already purchased drones for their businesses from retail electronics stores. Those stores, however, can’t follow through with help registering the drones or securely storing data.

“We wondered, how can we pro- vide a service to fill in those gaps, and then we realized we have individuals here with those talents,” Thrasher says. “Where we started using drones just with line work, now we’ve found another way we can help serve our members. It’s been a great project to be a part of.”

Swank points to another area of local interest. Fire departments and other emergency services have begun to contact the co-op in hopes of partnering on drone missions to assess and monitor brush fires, floods, and other disaster situations, he says.

NRECA’s Sloboda sees immense value in launching drones from substation pods to find and assess system glitches and to follow up with automatic, machine-learned notifications to co-op dispatch centers.

“We’re looking at the drone as just another sensor,” he says. “It’s a mobile sensor, but it’s just like all the other devices co-ops are using.”

As for repairing downed lines or moving transformers from the warehouse to the field, he has his doubts. “Yeah, that’s not going to happen,” he says. “You still need humans to do the actual work.”

But as the 3-D printers at Central Electric churn out another round of drones, Swank has a hunch that more is in store.

“We definitely believe that the capabilities of the drone will go far beyond what we imagine right now,” he says.