Energy companies and public utilities were some of the earliest adopters of drones. It’s no surprise: drones have helped them save time and money by speeding up infrastructure inspections and keeping workers out of danger. And that’s just scratching the surface of the benefits they’ve brought.
But there are risks that come with adopting a relatively new technology. Legal, operational, and safety concerns can make some stakeholders nervous. Even a drone program that starts out strong can hit roadblocks that could halt progress and development.
Every drone program wants to avoid these kinds of obstacles. Here’s a list of six top pitfalls we’ve seen drone programs run into — and how to avoid them.
Pitfall 1: Failing to make a strong business case for adopting drones
It’s easy to make the mistake of focusing on the novelty and excitement of drone technology, yet underselling the value of the data that can be collected. To find long-term success and keep your program funded, you need to be results-oriented from the beginning.
Stakeholders will want to see budget and ROI estimates, solid operating procedures, and quality use cases. Start simple and track your results. For example, some utilities first used drones to inspect bird nests on their towers. It’s a simple use case, but it saves time and reduces environmental impact. Later on, once you’ve proven your drones’ value, you can try for larger goals like inspecting large infrastructure such as wind turbines.
Pitfall 2: Not tracking risk reduction as a primary benefit
For many utilities, lowered risk is one of the biggest perks of a drone program. How can you quantify that risk reduction and prove the benefits to your safety team?
Start by making sure your drone ops aren’t adding any unnecessary risk. Your program’s policies and training standards should help to ensure that crews won’t violate airspace regulations or local ordinances, cause damage, or infringe on privacy.
Then, track the ways drones increase worker safety. Show how many times a drone keeps workers from having to go up in a bucket truck and perform tasks at height around energized power lines. Explain how a drone can enter hazardous areas in a power plant and reduce worker hours in these locations.
Again, that’s just a start. Drones can increase safety by reducing worker exposure to hazards such as:
- Climbing towers and scaffolds
- Unstable stockpiles
- High-tension power lines
- Ash pool toxins
- Driving unmaintained roads
Pitfall 3: Picking the wrong aircraft for the job
Some companies purchase a drone before they’ve nailed down an initial use case. This can be a big mistake that can instantly tank your budget.
Not all drones are created equal. Get the best drone for your business by asking the right questions:
- What performance standards do you need to meet your goals?
- Is the drone manufacturer reliable? Do they offer support?
- What maintenance and upkeep is required?
- What sensors will you need to capture data?
It’s easiest to start with one model of drone across your program. This simplifies training and makes for more consistent performance. But as your program scales up, expect to diversify your drone fleet, using the best aircraft for the job at hand.
Pitfall 4: Using the wrong software
Choosing the correct software is a critical part of setting up a drone program. You need software to process the data you capture and build deliverables like 3D models. You also need software to manage your flights, check airspace, and handle reporting on your program.
Make sure the software you choose supports all your missions and the models of drones you’ll use. Look for solutions that are flexible enough to handle what you’re flying today as well as what you may be flying in the future. Also, make sure your software solution includes LAANC access to controlled airspace so you can quickly get access to key service areas.
Pitfall 5: Failing to get buy-in across the company
When you’re starting out, you need support from the top, but you also want to gain interest across different teams. Often, a program that gets siloed into one department early on has a hard time expanding into other units later on.
It’s smart to educate fellow employees as well as corporate leadership about your drone program. Gaining buy-in needs to happen around the water cooler as well as in the C-suite. Such networking leads to enthusiasm about drones within your company as well as ideas on potential use cases. And with drones being used around solar, coal, and nuclear generation plants, distribution infrastructure, natural gas pipelines, and much more, drones have a lot to offer across your company.
Pitfall 6: Underestimating training needs
Drone programs are aviation programs. Running an aviation program requires skills and protocols that may not be part of your everyday business. Even if you are equipped to handle corporate aviation, chances are your procedures are designed for crewed helicopters with a totally different scope of operations.
Anyone who pilots a drone needs thorough training, whether they have aviation experience or not. Getting pilots legally certified to fly drones is just a starting point. You’ll need to make sure your pilots are familiar with your corporate flight standards and established procedures. It’s a good practice to set tiers for your pilots based on hours logged or types of missions flown. That way, only more experienced pilots of a certain tier can fly more complex missions.
Want help training your drone crew? Skyward helps train corporate drone teams and get them up and running successfully as quickly as possible.
Looking for more best practices and pitfalls to avoid?
Download Skyward’s Guide: Drones in Energy and Utilities