Up in the air—it’s a bird. It’s a plane! … It’s a drone?

Eh, no big deal.

The day when it’s common to see a drone, or unmanned aircraft system (UAS), hovering above a power line isn’t here yet, but it is coming, says Stanley McHann, NRECA’s senior research engineer.

“We’re right at the point now where the technology, the rules for use, and the broad awareness of the benefits are coming together,” he says. “I see this moving very fast in the next few years.”

Co-ops are increasingly adding UAS technologies to their operations, maintenance, and marketing plans. And while there are no firm numbers on use within the network, McHann estimates at least 400 co-ops own or deploy drones.

He bases the estimate on participation in workshops he conducts at NRECA events and conferences and the nearly constant inquiries he receives as the association’s UAS program lead in the Business and Technology Strategies group.

The interest, he says, increases as UAS technology evolves with airframes that are more maneuverable, can lift and carry loads, and are equipped with new thermal, sonic, and laser sensors.

“The early adopters have moved from, ‘Hey this is cool!’ to using drones as an integral tool in system reliability,” McHann says.

These whirring remote-control aircraft readily caught the attention of co-op engineers and tech-oriented employees as far back as 10 years ago, when drones were being showcased for their military applications in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Industry interest and applications go even further back. The first patent was granted in 1989 for a remotely piloted drone to monitor power lines and rights-of-way, according to a 2017 report by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory that examined UAS technology in the utility industry.

One of the earliest unofficial practical applications of a drone at a co-op was from 2015, when Pedernales Electric Cooperative was assessing damage from devastating Memorial Day floods along the Blanco River watershed in the Texas Hill Country.

Eric Bitzko is the system maintenance supervisor who heads Pedernales’s UAS program. He says his “Aha!” moment came when he realized he could use a recreational drone to fly a strong but light rope over dangerously flooded streams to an awaiting crew.

The pull rope was then attached to conductor cable, which was tugged into place and installed. When he proposed the idea, permission was granted because of the obvious advantages of using the small aircraft.

“It was faster and safer than putting an apprentice lineman in a kayak to carry the pull line across the stream,” Bitzko says.

It was effectively the proof-of-concept trial that launched the Pedernales UAS department, which now has eight drone pilots certified by the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA)—two full time—with plans to expand to 24.

The speed, efficiency, and economies offered by UAS are key advantages for a system the size of Pedernales, with 300,000 accounts across 8,100 square miles and 22,813 miles of line. The co-op has five drones in operation and expects to increase to 16 this year.

Pedernales targets much of its UAS program at preventative maintenance. In 2018–19, it concentrated on 40 distribution feeders serving over 53,000 members. More than 480 flight miles revealed some 2,000 maintenance items, 52 of which were critical. After the project, the co-op’s System Average Interruption Duration Index (SAIDI) dropped by 15 percent.

The UAS unit has also supported more than 30 mission requests from other Pedernales departments, including new-construction quality assurance, surveying right-of-way conditions, compliance inspections, and outage troubleshooting. The co-op estimates these drone flights are 90 percent cheaper than ground surveys.

But the most important metric, Bitzko says, is increased safety because line crews spend fewer hazardous hours on poles and towers.

Training is just the beginning

McHann says a good UAS program is built to meet a co-op’s specific needs. Nevertheless, most programs tend to have four high-level goals or applications:

  • System assessment (post-storm and routine)
  • Inspections
  • Asset management and inventory
  • Safety

In Michigan, Cherryland Electric Cooperative’s in-house UAS program has had a similar core mission to that of Pedernales during its two years of operation.

Its two drones are detailed primarily for preventative maintenance, says Frank Siepker, engineering and operations manager. Their role is to detect defective components, conduct asset inventory with high-resolution zoom cameras, and perform thermal imaging. Cherryland serves some 36,000 meters across 3,000 miles of line.

The drones fly a couple of missions per month, and Siepker would like to handle more. But the Cherryland program is in a bit of limbo now because four of its nine qualified and FAA-certified pilots have left the co-op. One retired, but the others took higher-paying jobs.

“I wouldn’t do this any differently, but I can see that training a drone pilot for a utility application makes them very attractive to other utilities that can pay them more,” Siepker says.

He says the co-op is fortunate because it partners with Northwestern Michigan College in offering a quality training program to local students. The approach is a home-study/classroom hybrid, followed by a five-day intensive flying course and a day of shadowing trainees at work. Instruction is customized for utilities and includes flying close to obstacles, navigating at a distance but within line of sight, and operating near energized equipment.

Siepker points out that the school doesn’t necessarily mean a ready-made talent pool for the co-op’s drone program. It takes many hours, he says, for a pilot without a utility background to acquire all the necessary skills.

“A lineman who is a pilot is ideal because they have the experience and know what to look for when assessing the system,” he says. “But we find that those people who are crisp with their mechanical skills can be brought up to think more like a lineworker.”

McHann says even with a strong understanding of utility operations, drone operators need hours of training to be comfortable with aviation controls and working in a high-voltage environment, often with turbulent weather and rugged terrain as complicating factors.

“It’s not unlike piloting regular aircraft in that you must continuously train. In some ways, it is more demanding because the software necessary for drone operation and their array of sensors is always being updated,” he says. “Plus, it seems like the FAA regulations are also always under review in how UAS are used. You have to stay on top of all that.“I would say that getting your minimum qualification is only the beginning of the skill set you need.”

The most basic qualification for flight is registering the drone with the FAA and passing the agency’s Remote Pilot Certificate exam for a $150 fee. This test, established in 2016, requires that non-recreational drone operators understand federal airspace regulations, aviation and aeronautic fundamentals, and safety procedures.

Costs and savings

The costs of standing up an in-house UAS program are not easy to quantify and depend on each co-op’s needs. A suitable drone for smaller tasks like pole inspections and post-storm assessment might cost between $1,500 and $5,000. But getting a broad operational program off the ground can be upwards of $100,000, McHann says. That would include outlays for the aircraft, support equipment, and training and insuring operators.

“It is a not a part-time gig,” he says.

In his training courses for co-op UAS owners and operators, McHann emphasizes the importance of constructing a plan that maximizes the service a drone can offer.

“Those with the appropriate plan are getting the best value, regardless of the cost or sophistication of their unmanned vehicle. They are the ones that have SOPs for aircraft and operators, the software, and are measuring the results of all the tasks,” he says. “Any resultant improvements of the line performance more than justifies costs. And, of course, anything that keeps someone from climbing a pole and being exposed to that inherent danger, you cannot quantify.”

Assigning a hard dollar figure to potential savings of a UAS program is difficult, but utilities with robust systems calculate the costs of two lineworkers in bucket truck for about $150 an hour, which covers about four poles, McHann says. The same task performed by drones and experienced operators and data interpreters using a pickup truck scales to about $6 per pole with approximately 15 seconds spent on each pole.

Contracting as an option

One option for co-ops that want the benefits of a UAS program but not the in-house costs is contracting with a third party for some or all services.

Such is the arrangement between MidSouth Electric Cooperative and McCord Engineering, both based outside of Houston. Their partnership goes back to 2016, when the co-op needed highly advanced imagery from McCord’s drones to merge with years of data on soils, vegetation, and rainfall history along its transmission lines.

The drones surveil those lines that run through 1,600 forested and rural square miles with high-resolution cameras and light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensors to collect data for precision vegetation management.

Now the co-op and McCord are partnering on a fiber-to-the-home installation project. The drones are sent out to inspect poles and aid in the installation by flying draw lines over rugged areas so crews can more easily and quickly install connections.

“Even if you contract for services, you need to understand what the technology is capable of, licensing, and the insurance requirements,” McHann advises. “Pick a mission, and don’t expect one platform to do everything.”

He adds that training needs to extend not only to a contractor’s operators but also to internal interpretation of data generated in UAS missions.

From novelty to standard issue

The FAA in March reported that it had registered 1.5 million UAS, including nearly 442,000 commercial aircraft flown by 171,744 certified pilots.

With increasing weather severity, drones seem to be the go-to post-storm technology to quickly determine damage. After a 2019 storm, for example, a drone used by a single crew captured 51 miles of detailed system information in just six hours.

Drone and utility industry experts often compare the spread of UAS to that of bucket trucks. When they were introduced in the 1950s, their usefulness was immediately clear. Though expensive, co-ops might invest to buy one for their system. Eventually they’d get more for each district. Then more for each crew.

McHann expects the day will arrive when a drone will be just another tool on a bucket truck or when drones charging on pods are dispatched in automatic or manually controlled missions, performed day and night, to provide constant “eyes” on a system and keep power flowing.

“From the beginning, the main limitation of these remarkable aircraft systems was how you envisioned their use,” McHann says. “I don’t think we have even scratched the surface yet as to how these devices will serve co-ops.”