If you’re developing a drone program in an energy company or utility, you’re encountering a lot of questions. Your business decision makers want to know about return on investment. Your pilots want to know guidelines for following flight protocols. Legal counsel is asking about potential liability. Your risk and compliance managers are wondering how they’ll audit the program. Safety officers want to know about accident prevention. 

In my role here at Skyward, I’ve worked side-by-side with a number of energy-related enterprises. Here are my top four tips for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) directors who are growing drone programs at utilities, oil and gas enterprises, solar plants, or wind power companies.

1. Develop use cases built around company objectives

Most drone programs start with a few use cases that quickly show both the value and the potential for the technology. Be clear about your goals and the benefits to the organization. Do they save time or money? Do they reduce risk? How do they help the business? You need to prove your drones are delivering value to build support for the program.

Begin by identifying use cases that directly align with bigger company objectives. And look for how uncrewed systems could improve on existing processes and systems. For example, Southern Company, one of the nation’s largest electric and gas utilities, had a big pain point. They got interested in drones as a way to decrease helicopter use and lower risks to personnel.

Southern’s starting point was improving worker safety during inspections. But they quickly saw how drone technology could do a lot more. Drones could greatly improve grid reliability by getting better inspection information a lot faster. They were cutting costs, with workers completing the job of pulling rope for conductor wire after storms in weeks instead of months.

Make your first use cases about the priorities of your company’s stakeholders and executives. That will help you get buy-in from the people who are enabling your flight operations.

2. Calculate ROI and use it as rationale to scale your drone program

In order to scale your drone program, you need to be able to prove to your executives that drones are worth the financial investment. Usually, they’ll want to see dollar savings. Be ready with a cost analysis.

You may be pleasantly surprised.  In the cost column, your budget will include drone hardware, equipment, software to process data and build models, and pilots. On the savings side, you’ll be accounting for operational efficiencies, better worker safety, major incidents averted, and other benefits. These often outweigh the cost of operations.

For example, the oil and gas industry spends $37 billion a year monitoring above- and below-ground pipes to detect leaks. Contamination from leaks of produced water kills vegetation and can ruin crops in places where pipelines run by farmland. Remediation can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Drone inspections can swiftly survey hundreds of miles of pipeline, producing aerial imagery that shows the landscape changes that indicate pipeline leaks.

One Oklahoma pipeline owner saved up to 90 percent in remediation costs this way. Flare stack inspections and oil platform scopes done by drone are also saving companies millions. Another energy use case found that hydroelectric dam inspection costs can be reduced by 40 to 60 percent through UAS.

Drones can also reduce the need for bucket trucks, an expensive field tool that typically requires a crew of at least two running an enormous piece of hardware and working in hazardous conditions.

In contrast, sending up a drone for utility pole inspections slashes labor and hardware costs. Reducing your fleet by even one truck can result in $80,000–$100,000 savings when compared to the cost of a single drone. And that doesn’t count the harder-to-calculate savings from keeping your workforce on the ground, out of harm’s way.

3. Centralize and streamline your documentation

Keeping close track of your flight operations is crucial for more than just the people on your aviation team. Documenting all parts of your program lets executives have visibility into the aspects related to their departments. You and they should be able to record your missions, track your safety, and know where, how, and when you’re flying.

The best way to do this is through an aviation management platform like Skyward’s. Our management services enable drone pilots and managers to:

  • Check airspace and get access to controlled areas.
  • Plan, fly, and log missions.
  • Track all the drones, batteries, and personnel in your fleet.
  • View historical data for every flight logged.
  • Record all this information in a digital system for easy reporting.
  • Provide access to anyone in the organization who needs it.

As your program grows, you’ll have more aircraft, more people, more use cases, and perhaps even other airspace rules to track. To stay on top of what everybody in your program is doing, you’ll need to automate as much documentation and reporting as possible, especially in organizations that are nationwide or international.

4. Future proof your drone operations

Drones are still a relatively new technology that continues to evolve at a fast pace. With Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband cellular network coming online, many new uses for drones should be within reach.

For example, flights that go beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) may soon become a normal part of operations for energy companies and utilities. Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and Remote ID for drones could open doors for connected drones within energy companies. Imagine dozens of drones equipped with computer vision and collision avoidance sensors at work in a disaster zone, safely controlled from an office hundreds of miles away. Or a fleet of pre-positioned drones performing regularly-programmed infrastructure inspections or triggered to act by specific events.

Skyward’s Professional Services team has the latest on what’s possible for corporate drone programs and what’s coming with 5G. So, once you’ve proved that drones are saving you money and that your crews are doing it more safely, be sure to look ahead for use cases that will help your company achieve your goals. Drones may even help you leapfrog your competitors.

How Skyward helps

Skyward has helped energy and utility companies stand up successful drone programs. And we’ve helped enterprise programs scale up while managing risk and regulatory compliance. Get a free consultation with a Skyward drone expert today.

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