Unmanned aerial vehicles – also known as UAVs or drones – offer the utility industry the promise of lower costs and improved worker safety with regard to line inspections, storm damage assessments, and other tasks that are traditionally performed using manned helicopters and third-party inspection services.
And the market appears ripe for rapid expansion, as drone technology becomes more advanced and hardware costs continue to plummet. In fact, global annual revenue for drone and robotics technologies for transmission and distribution is expected to grow from $131.7 million in 2015 to $4.1 billion in 2024 – about a 30-fold increase – according to Navigant Research (www.navigantresearch.com).
But the U.S. market still has regulatory hurdles to overcome before utilities can deploy drones at a level where they can effectively realize the full business benefits of the technology. Federal Aviation Administration restrictions, such as having to maintain visual line of sight, have prevented utilities from being able to fly drones over longer distances and inspect large sections of power lines at a time – the holy grail for utility drone programs.
Yet despite these constraints, a growing number of U.S. utility companies, like Dominion Virginia Power, which launched its drone program in 2013, are getting into the drone business and seeing promising results. And there could be huge implications for fleet.
What exactly is involved with starting a utility drone program? How are these programs managed? And what’s the potential impact on fleet? Will drones replace certain types of ground vehicles? Will they eventually become fleet assets?
UFP recently spoke with Steve Eisenrauch, manager of transmission forestry and line services for Dominion Virginia Power and the leader of his department’s drone program, to explore these questions and more.
UFP: What motivated you and your team at Dominion to launch your drone program in 2013?
Steve Eisenrauch: The technology. Basically, at that point, I had come to the realization that it looked like the technology was going to be usable for utilities. It had advanced to where it was more commonplace in the market. There were some companies out there that were starting to offer drone services, and the FAA was looking at the ability for folks to start using drones commercially.
UFP: What often happens when launching a new program is that you encounter some level of resistance because people fear change. Was there any resistance you had to face when getting your drone program started?
SE: Interestingly enough, no. From a getting-it-started perspective, the only thing that we had to make sure of was that our vendors had FAA approval to do the flights. Of course, we had to make sure that they had all their proper licenses and certificates and insurance requirements. But we had an area that we could test that wasn't going to be energized, so if there was an issue, it wouldn't be a problem. Our folks looked at this as really a groundbreaking technology that could be a great tool for utilities to be able to use.
UFP: Who operates the drones right now for Dominion?
SE: We have a vendor that uses two operators for each drone flight – a licensed pilot who controls the drone and a sensor operator who controls the camera to point, zoom, tilt up and down, that sort of thing. Basically, the pilot will take the drone up and get it in position; then the sensor operator will control the camera to look at the different assets and structures to make sure there are no issues.
UFP: You’ve decided to outsource the drones and the personnel who operate them. What was the reasoning to go with that model versus owning the drones?
SE: Several reasons. One is the ability to get the program up and running very quickly. These vendor companies already had the drones, the FAA clearances to do the work and the pilots. When we first started flying the drones in 2014, a commercial pilot's license was required to fly. That changed last year with the FAA’s new requirement for a commercial drone operator to only have a remote pilot certification.
And beyond the operator needing a pilot’s certification, there's still a lot of on-the-job training and practice to operate drones around power lines. That's one reason why we gave it to the third-party vendor.
We also had to consider that drone technology gets outdated very quickly. A third-party service provider is more likely to upgrade quicker than a utility would be able to do.
Yet that's not to say that down the road, as drones become more autonomous, we won't integrate them into our line crews. It's just initially, and for the last couple of years, we haven't chosen to go that route quite yet. We don't think [the drone technology] is quite as far along as it needs to be at this point.
UFP: What department does your drone program fit under?
SE: Electric transmission is the main user of drones within Dominion. Now, once again, that's not to say there aren't a few other drones scattered around other departments at Dominion that are used occasionally. But the main drone program is housed here in electric transmission.
UFP: You’re currently operating three drones. Where do you see that number, say, in the next year? Do you see it remaining roughly the same or growing?
SE: If the FAA regulations remain the same, then from a day-to-day operations perspective I don't see that number changing. But if the regulations change to allow for beyond line-of-sight operation, I think that number's going to grow.
UFP: What’s the potential impact that the growth of drones could have on fleet? Do you envision drones impacting the composition of Dominion’s ground fleet, where they might replace all-terrain vehicles or other equipment that would get out to typically hard-to-reach areas?
SE: I think drones are going to be very helpful at providing information that identifies what's needed to take care of issues in those areas. But I don't think that drones are going to be replacing the bucket trucks and the ATVs for the guys that actually get to those locations once the issue is discovered.
One thing I would expect, though, is that drones eventually will become a fleet asset. That’s because one of the things we want to be able to do down the road is that when we have a line operation, if a line locks out, we’ll get an approximate location from our fault analysis group. Then we have somebody in our system operation center who dispatches the nearest drone to that location. The drones would be able to get real-time feedback, so they know precisely what equipment, people, access and material are needed to get to the site and repair the issue as quickly as possible.
What that means is that we're going to have to have these drones stationed around our service area, not just here at our headquarters or at a vendor. Maybe we have them stationed strategically in some of our substations or other office locations so that we can be able to give a command from a central area and fly these things out.
Then, instead of having three drones – like we have right now – we may have 100 drones. And at that scale, I could see the drone becoming a fleet asset.
So, I don't know whether we’ll see drones taking away from the existing fleet. But we may see them becoming fleet assets in the future.