A lot of companies start drone programs by experimenting to find what works and what doesn’t. But if you’re working with critical infrastructure, the “trial and error” approach may bring unacceptable levels of risk. It can make launching a drone program a daunting task.

That’s why Skyward offers a Program Start Package. We’ve designed this package to equip companies with the policies, equipment, software, and training they need to launch a drone program and achieve value quickly. Our aim is to help you avoid common pitfalls and find practical use cases as soon as possible.

Moss & Associates, a national construction management company, purchased Skyward’s Program Start Package in 2019. Today, Moss is scaling and expanding drone use across the entire enterprise.

More recently, we had the chance to help a company in the energy and utilities industry launch an enterprise-grade drone program: Great River Energy.

Great River Energy Skyward Case Study

Great River Energy — Minnesota’s Electric Power Co-op

Great River Energy is a not-for-profit wholesale electric power cooperative which provides electricity to 28 member-owner distribution cooperatives. Together, their systems serve 700,000 families, farms, and businesses in Minnesota. The cooperative operates more than 4,820 miles of transmission lines.

In 2015, a few employees began a grassroots effort to look into what aerial robotic technology could do to help the company. This experimentation led Great River Energy to begin establishing a more formal drone program in 2017.

Great River Energy knew they wanted to scale up their drone program to be a useful asset across the company. Finding uses for the drone technology wasn’t hard, but developing the program to enable more employees to use the technology while focusing on mitigating risk required a bit more effort.

Early success with Great River Energy’s drone program

The early program had two main focuses: safety and savings. We had the chance to speak with Kyle Gustofson, UAS Program Manager at Great River Energy. He explained how the team pitched the value of drones to leadership.

“Oftentimes with a new tool or technology, there’s the triple constraint: you can either do it better, you can do it faster, or you can do it cheaper — and you can only pick two,” said Kyle. “In this case, drones are a tool that can capture better data, do it cheaper, and do it safer. It’s a rare triple-win technology.”

Great River Energy started finding more and more uses for drones in the field and seeing gains in safety and savings. However, as the program started to expand, a gap began to form: they were having trouble managing all of their operations, aircraft, and personnel. They needed a platform to help them manage their growing program, and they were looking for a way to improve the overall quality of their operations.

“We understood that we weren’t aviators, but we needed to start to think like aviators,” said Kyle. “We wanted to bring in aviation experts and a professional services team to deliver a formal training for our UAS Program.”

Great River Energy Partners with Skyward for drone training

Great River Energy decided to reach out to Skyward for help. Prior to the pandemic, Skyward’s professional services team flew in to provide in-person training to Great River Energy’s team. The instruction started with classroom training sessions to get the pilots comfortable and confident in program standards, operating procedures, regulations, and other critical areas. The training also included hands-on flight training and practice missions to put the lessons to work in the field.

What made these training sessions unique, however, was that Skyward followed a “Train the Trainer” model. Skyward’s professional services consultants coached Great River Energy’s team on how they could run training programs of their own. The goal was to enable Great River Energy’s team to deploy drones to the company’s service centers located throughout the service territory.

Great River Energy now uses Skyward’s Drone Management Platform to oversee its entire drone operation. From flight planning and equipment management to requesting airspace access, it all goes into Skyward. This enables Kyle and his team to oversee the entire program in one platform, which makes reporting much easier.

“Being able to use the platform for our operation management, along with the support we received, helped us grow our program,” said Kyle.

Putting drones to work at an electrical utility

Following the training, Great River Energy’s drone team got to work with a variety of use cases. They began performing tasks such as:

  • Transmission line inspection – Looking at pole top rot, insulators, and thermal inspection of splices
  • Structural photography – Assessing and documenting critical infrastructure
  • Avian nest inspection – Using zoom cameras to look into bird nests on towers
  • 3D mapping – Using photogrammetry to build maps
  • Thermal imaging – Inspecting transmission infrastructure
  • Marketing material – Collecting photos and videos for the communications department
  • LiDAR – Used to collect LiDAR survey points and create advanced 3D mapping
  • Rope pulling – Support crews pulling ropes while constructing transmission lines

To support a major construction upgrade, Great River Energy used drones to simulate a lightning strike on an energized transmission line. This allowed them to test their relays and electrical protection systems without putting employees in danger.

Great River Energy is looking to the future of drone operations

Today, Great River Energy has 11 certified drone pilots and operates a fleet of 13 aircraft. And they’re just getting started. They are preparing for a variety of future use cases by keeping up with the latest technology and regulatory innovations. They’re looking forward to using drones for:

Great River Energy plans to have drones available at their service center locations. Since they are strategically located throughout their service territory, field technicians could reduce their response time and increase safety.

Great River Energy is also helping move the drone industry forward by participating in industry events, networking with aviation schools, and supporting their member-owners as they launch their own drone programs.

See how Skyward’s Program Start Package can help you launch drones

Skyward can help your company take a drone program further, faster. Skyward’s Program Start Package for enterprises is designed to equip you with everything you need to start flying a high-value drone operation in a few weeks.

Interested in learning more about Great River Energy and Skyward? Download the case study.

Skyward Guide to Starting a Drone Program