A SkySpecs drone inspects a wind turbine.By Dusty Weis, Association of Equipment Manufacturers

2017 will go down in history as the year that drone technology rose up in response to natural disasters and, for the first time, aided significantly in the recovery efforts.

For utility and aviation industry insiders, the responses to Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida represent not only a major milestone in the adoption of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to aid in disaster recovery, but a preview of the vastly untapped potential the technology has to reshape the industry in years ahead.

“Essentially, every drone that flew meant that a traditional aircraft was not putting an additional strain on an already fragile system,” Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta said in a speech to the InterDrone conference on Sept. 6. “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.”

Drone suppliers shared stories from the recovery efforts during a panel discussion at the International Construction & Utility Equipment Exposition (ICUEE), and were even more optimistic about the pace at which drone technology is being integrated into the utility industry. The participants agreed that utilities stand to become more cost effective, more responsive and better informed about the problems that are affecting their systems in real time.

A drone hovers at sunset.And, with a few more advances in technology, they say that the day is coming when drones will be able to operate independent of live human direction, seamlessly integrating current data and observations into complex power grid systems.


How Drones Aided in 2017 Hurricane Recovery Efforts

The Florida Keys are the archetypical definition of “One Way In, One Way Out.” From Key Largo just south of Miami, crossing dozens of little islands all the way to Key West, 77,000 people who call the Keys home are connected to the mainland by just one road—the “Overseas Highway.”

More formally known as U.S. 1, and spanning 113 miles to the tip of Key West, the Overseas Highway is the delicate two-lane thread connecting this Florida tourism hub to the rest of the state.

So when Hurricane Irma roared across the Keys on September 10, 2017, it created one of the many unique access challenges for utility crews who were crucial to getting the lights back on after 2017’s monster storms. Once the winds died down, inspectors had to ensure the safety of each bridge segment before power crews were allowed in, leaving tens of thousands of residents waiting in the dark for days.

Dusty Weis from AEM, Rusty Ortkiese from Gresco, and Danny Ellis from SkySpecs discuss drones at an ICUEE panel.Enter the new wave of utility drone technology, provided by outfitters like Gresco Utility Supply. Technology Solutions Engineer Rusty Ortkiese says that the drones his company supplies to utility companies enabled crews to survey infrastructure damage and coordinate their responses well before they were able to physically access the damage left by Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.

“I just need to get a view of what’s going on a half mile that way,” Ortkiese said during the panel discussion at ICUEE, “and instead of waiting for a large coordinated effort to open up access, I can pop up, get what I need, make a decision and move on to the next one.”

Using these state-of-the-art UAS technologies, Ortkiese says recovery crews were able to pinpoint damage ahead of time and respond more efficiently when they finally gained access to a storm-damaged area.

While Ortkiese’s company Gresco sells the drones themselves to utility companies, another player in the UAS sphere utilizes a different business model. SkySpecs maintains its own fleet of drones, which it uses to provide damage assessments and predictive maintenance as a service to utility companies, particularly in the wind power sector. The drones are automated, and, once they're activated by a technician on-site, fly a predetermined route to collect the needed data.

Danny Ellis, CEO and co-founder of SkySpecs, has had his hands on UAS technology since it was in its infancy, and sees its adoption during 2017’s hurricane responses as an affirmation of his life’s work. Whether it’s to repair storm damage or manage infrastructure lifecycles, he says real-time aerial photos and data are critical assets, and drones provide the best means of getting them.

Engineers pilot drones at a worksite.“It’s expensive and timely to get a real helicopter out there,” Ellis says. “But that’s the only other way to get that real-time overhead data. For a thousandth of the price, with a drone, you can get that all over the place, collect that data and figure out where to send your people.”


The Human Side of Drone Technology

In order to avoid the ire of the FAA, Ellis used to have to tie a string to early drone models with which he experimented as a grad student at the University of Michigan. This allowed him to classify the UAS as kites instead of aerial vehicles, sidestepping the stacks of regulations, laws and licensing requirements that would have otherwise sandbagged his research.

“There were ways around it, but they were not good,” he chuckles. “It certainly wasn’t enabling innovation.”

Many of the regulatory hurdles that stood in the way of advancing drone technology have now been removed, Ellis says, with the adoption of Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations. Adopted in 2016, the new rules for drone pilots opened the technology up to well-regulated commercial adoption without overly burdensome red tape.

Instead, Ellis says that the largest remaining barriers to the adoption of drone technology stem from workforce concerns and the still-evolving technology.

The view of some utility lines from a drone.The first issue is rooted in the perception that drone inspections of utility infrastructure will result in fewer jobs for the people who work in that field—a misperception that Ellis says couldn’t be further from the truth.

“We talk to those guys,” Ellis says. “They hang from ropes to inspect these things, and more often than not they don’t find anything wrong. What they’re in the job for is doing the repairs, doing the physical work, and we’re not taking that away.”

“The physical work still needs to be done. They just have better data to know, what tools do I bring so I’m not surprised when I’m hanging 300 feet up in the air on a rope,” Ellis says.


The Future of Drones in the Utilities

Much as they did with the adoption of smartphones in the utility industry, Ortkiese says attitudes about drones are shifting. And as battery, propulsion and automation technology grows in sophistication, he sees drones flying greater distances and packing a larger suite of more powerful instruments.

Many of today’s drone models are capable of laser measurements, lidar scans and thermal imaging, but better batteries will result in greater sensor payloads on each UAS deployed to the field in the future.

A drone hovers near a wind turbine.Ellis hopes to someday market a SkySpecs automated drone pod that will be mounted as standard equipment on utility trucks to help crews survey infrastructure at the touch of a button.

“You may not use it every day, but in the instances when you need an aerial shot, you hit a couple buttons, the drone deploys and it goes and collects the data it needs to collect,” Ellis says. “The drones are going to do their own thing, and the utility worker can go get a cup of coffee or whatever, and not worry about flying the drone.”

In the future, Ortkiese envisions automated drones flying miles-long stretches of remote utility lines, inspecting the infrastructure and landing at designated charging ports built into the towers to power up for the journey’s next leg.

But perhaps an even greater implication for the utility industry, Ortkiese says, is what drones will mean for advanced surveying of utility building sites. Old data and educated guesswork will become things of the past, he says, as companies adopt fleets of UAS to map out massive project sites.

“In 10 years, when we look back at drone technology, we’re going to think that it brought us the 3D world in real time,” Ortkiese says. “There are a lot of applications for drones, but I think mapping is going to be 50 percent or more of their use.”

One thing is certain. Much like the 2017 storms that showcased its potential to reshape the utility industry, drone technology is a force for change with vast potential and wide-ranging reach.

“We’re really excited to be living in a time where these transformational technologies are coming out, and getting to experience change like this at a pace like this,” Ortkiese says. “So I’m excited to just see where it’s at next year.”


Dusty Weis is AEM’s strategic communications manager, covering the impact that new and emerging trends and technologies will have on the construction, agriculture and manufacturing sectors. Email him at dweis@aem.org or follow him on Twitter @dustyweis.