It goes without saying that there is no silver lining to a hurricane. And hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria ensured that 2017 will go down as a historically rough year for co-ops in the South and Southeast.

But the trio of crippling storms did offer at least one opportunity: the first real chance to test how drones could help restoration efforts during massive outages.

And electric cooperatives were on the front lines.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the hurricane response will be looked back upon as a landmark in the evolution of drone usage in this country,” Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Michael Huerta told a drone conference in September.

He went on to say that the pace of innovation in the drone industry has been like nothing his agency has seen before and that the FAA is working hard to “safely integrate this new technology without stifling innovation.”

When a disaster like a hurricane strikes, the FAA will typically place a temporary restriction on the use of drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). However, within a few hours after Hurricane Harvey moved out of the Houston area on August 28, the FAA had issued 137 airspace authorizations for commercial UAS operators to conduct damage assessments.

With most local airports closed and fuel supplies limited, Huerta said, “every drone that flew meant that a traditional aircraft was not putting an additional strain on an already fragile system.”

Similarly, after Hurricane Irma battered Florida on September 10 and 11, the FAA issued 132 UAS authorizations. Florida Power and Light (FPL) says it had 49 UAS teams surveying the damage.

The assistance of an FPL drone team after Irma convinced Florida Keys Electric Cooperative to get its own UAS to conduct preventive line maintenance.

“[FPL] flew a section of 138-kV transmission line that is out over the water in the Atlantic Ocean, looking for an issue causing the line to repeatedly trip,” recalls Keith Kropf, Florida Keys Electric Cooperative’s director of engineering. “After seeing firsthand what a drone could do for us, we bought our own. Now, we’ll be able to conduct closer, cheaper, and more frequent inspections. Drones will pay for themselves with the first outage you prevent by finding a problem before it fails.”

Clay Electric Cooperative in Keystone Heights, Florida, got critical help from a Pedernales Electric Cooperative line crew that included a drone team after Hurricane Irma devastated its far-flung service territory.

“Having the drone fly our islands saved us a full day of assessing damage,” says Mark Townsend, Clay Electric division manager of T&D construction. “We already have a drone in our budget for 2018 and have already sent one of our employees to a school to pilot our drone when it arrives.”

Johnson City, Texas-based Pedernales also sent line crews and drone teams to Talquin Electric Cooperative in Quincy, Florida, after Irma and to Jackson Electric Cooperative in Edna, Texas, after Harvey.

Back at home, Pedernales’s UAS program is changing the operational landscape.

Eric Bitzko, the co-op’s technical services supervisor, says they have used their drones for inspecting transmission and distribution lines, rights-of-way, and for multiple communication department projects.

“We’re achieving a quantum leap forward in our processes and procedures that translate into improved key performance metrics for our membership, such as reliability and controllable cost,” he says. “Even customer service, corporate citizenship, and communications are being improved.”

Five Pedernales employees have passed the FAA UAS pilot certification test.

Bitzko says the co-op is planning to add thermal imaging sensors to their drones soon and, after that, LiDAR (light detection and ranging). But he sees the greatest promise of unmanned aircraft in emerging technologies that could one day fully automate the line-inspection process.

“What I am really looking forward to is … coupling facial-recognition software with super learning computers that will automate the analytics of what is wrong with the equipment we are inspecting.”

Power to Communicate

Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Bastrop, Texas, first experienced the value of a UAS program in early 2015, when a LiDAR-equipped drone was used to create a highly detailed map and images of transmission lines and a topographic analysis of a new substation.

Bluebonnet General Manager Matt Bentke quickly saw not only the engineering and operations value of the platform but also the power it had to aid communications with the board of directors and members.

“It’s much easier and efficient, and more powerful and dynamic, to show photos and videos of important projects from ground and aerial perspectives during board meetings, employee meetings, and our annual meeting than taking 11 directors and dozens of employees to construction sites and other locations,” he says. “That’s a great use of drones that every co-op, regardless of size, can use to better serve its members, directors, and employees.”

The co-op purchased UAS shortly before Hurricane Harvey struck and was able to use it to carry a rope across the San Marcos River so linemen on the opposite side could pull power lines damaged by the rising river and erosion.

“The drone significantly reduced the time to restore power to the members affected by the outage,” says Bluebonnet Construction Coordinator Ray Bitzkie, who’s earned his FAA commercial drone pilot license.

With a sprawling 3,800-square-mile service territory to manage, Bitzkie has plenty of other opportunities to put Bluebonnet’s new drone through its paces.

“It can easily, quickly, and conveniently get to many places that would be quite difficult for our field crews to access,” he says.

Watch | Bluebonnet Electric Co-op’s Drone Over the San Marcos River

Outside Expertise

For Mid-South Synergy, it was a different sort of disaster that led to the use of a UAS: drought.

Throughout most of 2011, a brutal dry spell gripped the Navasota, Texas-based co-op’s territory and much of the state, killing thousands of trees within and near rights-of-way.

In the years since, the co-op has combined geographic information system data on soils, vegetation, and rainfall with historic outage data to create maps showing high-risk areas for dead trees. Last year, Comfort Manyame, Mid-South Synergy’s senior manager for research and technical strategy, suggested adding drones to the mix to pinpoint exact hazard-tree locations.

They now contract with an engineering consultant to conduct systemwide right-of-way management with a highly customized drone, including LiDAR capability.

“To my knowledge, there is not an out-of-the-box drone that will carry all of the sensors we utilize for any significant amount of time,”

Manyame says. “From the multispectral sensors, we are able to derive the normalized difference vegetation index, and that is giving us an indication of vegetation health, which allows us to prioritize our right-of-way work.” Manyame advises co-ops to start small with drone projects. Video and high-resolution photos are adequate for storm damage assessment and any post-storm Federal Emergency Management Agency audit. For larger projects, though, especially ones that involve LiDAR or specialized equipment and data collection, he recommends considering a contractor.

“This drone program has worked well for us because we teamed up with a consultant who had the in-house experience from a design and operation point of view,” he says.

Education Partner

Central Electric Cooperative in Stillwater, Oklahoma, may not be in danger of hurricane damage, but it’s right in the middle of Tornado Alley. The co-op has also had its share of system-crippling ice storms and wildfires.

To help keep up with maintenance and assess outages quickly, the co-op is working on an innovative Launchpod technology that will use a co-op substation as a home base for a UAS. The craft can be launched and remotely controlled over the co-op’s wireless network composed of 94 towers throughout its service area.

“We have been successful in testing autonomous flight from our systems operation center,” says Central Electric CEO David Swank. “Once autonomous flight is allowed by the FAA, we can send flight patterns to a drone to fly out to a feeder for routine system inspection or outage damage assessment.”

The co-op is working with nearby Oklahoma State University’s Unmanned Systems Research Institute on pilot training and a UAS compliance plan.

OSU is interested in the Launchpod concept for weather condition analysis. A UAS could be launched remotely from a Launchpod to measure thermodynamic data up to about 1,000 feet. The feature could enable more accurate tornado predictions, giving warnings as much as an hour sooner than is possible now.

Like Pedernales’s Bitzko, Swank sees combining infrared cameras, machine learning, and drones as a major development on the horizon. He also believes QR-code-reading drones could help further automate asset management and maintenance systems.

All Central Electric linemen have been trained on UAS, and five have received their FAA UAS pilot certification.

‘Industry-Altering Change’

Randy Elliott, senior director for regulatory counsel for NRECA, says with the 2017 hurricanes, he believes the FAA is well aware of and appreciates the use of drones in restoration efforts and damage assessment.

“I hope they are more open to granting waiver requests now,” says Elliott. “This is a pretty receptive FAA to that application.”

President Trump recently signed an executive order directing the Department of Transportation, which oversees the FAA, to develop procedures for allowing pilot programs through state, local, and tribal governments to further UAS innovation.

“Co-ops can’t make the application, but they could work with a county government or state authority to test their ideas,” Elliott says.

Thomas “TJ” Kirk, a technical research analyst at NRECA, is one of several NRECA employees closely following UAS issues. He says waivers for line-of-sight and nighttime use of drones that override the limits in place from the FAA are still difficult to get, but he’s hopeful that will change.

For utilities seeking help with launching a UAS program, Kirk recommends An Early Survey of Best Practices for the Use of Small Unmanned Aerial Systems by the Electric Utility Industry, a recent report by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The report can be downloaded at the Oak Ridge website.

“They provide a lot of guidance for any co-op looking at a drone program,” he says.

For those who want help earning their FAA UAS pilot certification, Kirk adds, the TechAdvantage Conference next month in Nashville, Tennessee, will offer training sessions.

Drone regulations at the federal, state, and local levels are all in flux and may be for a while, says Rick Lusk, one of the Oak Ridge report’s authors and the founder and director of the laboratory’s UAS Research Center . He recommends co-ops establish their own procedures, policies, and rules for safe flight operations in addition to keeping up with and following state, local, and federal UAS regulations.

Despite the unsettled regulatory landscape, Lusk says UAS technology is developing rapidly across multiple industries.

“Once the regulations finally catch up to the far-reaching civilian and commercial applications, this technology will be applicable across a wide range of uses,” he says. “The industrial revolution took 100 years to unfold. Industry-altering change like this now occurs in days, not centuries.”