Insights on Drones from POWER Engineers

Editor at Skyward

POWER Engineers is an engineering consulting firm specializing in the delivery of integrated solutions. Based in Idaho, with 40 locations across the United States, as well as an office in South Africa, POWER serves a wide range of projects, including facilities, infrastructure, environmental, and energy.

Early on, POWER realized the value that drones could add to their projects. And as a sophisticated consulting firm, they also understood the regulatory, insurance, internal, and client requirements they would need to meet in order to operate successfully.

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Aaron Ames, POWER’s department manager of Mapping and Analysis. Aaron shared lessons learned as well as advice for other engineering and construction firms looking to adopt drones. He also addressed some of the questions asked most frequently by Skyward friends and customers:

  • How do I make the case for drones to my executive team?
  • How do I choose which drones and software to invest in?
  • How do I scale my drone operations across multiple teams?
  • How do I track and manage everything?

Gaining buy-in for drones

Preparing to conduct a drone test flight

Prepping for an eBee training

Several years ago, Aaron and his colleagues anticipated a market for aerial data among their clients.

“The bulk of our work is in high voltage transmission lines,” Aaron explained. “The analysts in my department collect GIS data for an area, look for opportunities and constraints, create impact assessments and models, and locate the least impactful route for a transmission line.”

Before investing in drones, POWER had to show that there would be a market for aerial data. At the time, this was a challenge because the technology was in its infancy.

“It was hard to show that this was a service that our customers would pay for,” Aaron said. “So we did some market analysis and were able to show our leadership that companies subcontract large manned aircraft for the same type of data collection. At POWER, we routinely do this for large projects. Often there are reroutes and changes in the development of a transmission line. In cases like this, deploying an airplane takes a lot of time and money. We saw that drones could be a viable alternative for smaller projects or collection areas. We expected that drones would allow us to fly, obtain data, and have information to our design team within the week.”

As with most mature companies and major corporations, there were also concerns around risks. “We had one group that viewed drones as too risky—cowboys flying without any oversight. Another group viewed it as a hobby aircraft.”

Aaron alleviated these concerns by showing that senseFly’s fixed-wing eBee has many built-in safety features, and because it’s very lightweight, the risk to transmission lines and other facilities is very small.

Lesson #1: Gain buy in by addressing safety concerns and showing how drones will be able to make money, save money, or both.

Meeting regulatory requirements

Like many small businesses and major corporations in the United States, POWER’s drone program was stymied by the FAA’s queue for 333 Exemptions.  

“We sat in the 333 process for some time—about 9 months,” Aaron said. “At first, there was a lot of excitement: We had training flights, and colleagues started asking us to take on client projects. But we didn’t have the certification, so interest died pretty quickly.”

Pro tip: Market your drone program internally by presenting at internal and external meetings and conferences and contributing articles to your company newsletter.

Since Part 107 took effect in August, POWER has had three pilots pass the FAA’s knowledge test and receive certification.

“Now we’re trying to get that excitement going again,” Aaron said. “We’ve presented at a few internal conferences and we’re adding UAS as an additional offering to our existing services.”

Lesson #2: Plan for delays as you meet requirements from regulators or your own internal legal and risk management team.

Investing in the right aircraft + software solution

Currently POWER uses senseFly eBee for terrain and orthophotography collection and DJI Inspire for videography. Aaron kindly shared the current technology stack that POWER uses to gather aerial data on transmission line projects.

ebee10_group2

At RDO’s conference for senseFly eBee pilots

senseFly ebee: “We use the eBee to collect hybrid solution aerial photography and terrain, as well as ground elevations to support design,” Aaron said. “RDO, one of the major senseFly distributors, recently had a conference and invited 12 of its biggest clients that use eBee aircraft. The most exciting part of the conference was having 10 eBee in the air at the same time. We mapped a square mile in seven minutes. It took a lot of coordination, but the system was able to handle it. We also talked about the different systems we’re using and how we’re processing data. Being part of an expert group specializing in survey grade data collection really extends my base of knowledge.”

 

Pro tip: An active user community for software and aircraft can provide added value and expert guidance.

Pix4D: “We process our aerial data with Pix4D, which develops the image mosaic and terrain model. Flying the eBee is easy, collecting and processing the data is where you need to know what you are doing.”

ArcGIS and eMotion (senseFly’s GCS software): “I develop the actual areas I’m flying using ArcGIS and eMotion, and I decide which areas I’ll fly, including resolution and overlap, using a combination of ArcGIS, Google Earth, and eMotion.”

Global Mapper: “Depending on requirements, I’ll use Global Mapper to classify and process the point cloud, which can be pretty dense and doesn’t supply a lot of information until it’s processed. Then I can supply that point cloud to our engineers to use in their design software.”

Google Earth: “It’s a good communication tool because everybody has it and it’s quick and easy.”

Skyward: “I look to Skyward as a tracking tool that will help us differentiate ourselves and have all that information, especially our safety record, to show clients that we have a robust system that’s tracking everything that we do, from planning to delivery. So if they ask about flight hours and experience, we’ll have that ready, with all our insurance documentation and certifications.”

Lesson #3: First understand what you want to accomplish. Then purchase the combination of software, aircraft, and sensors that can support your deliverables.

Expanding drone operations throughout the firm

POWER has 40 offices in far-flung locations, providing a wide range of use cases—and all the challenges that come with scaling.

“Right now all of our equipment and pilots are in Boise,” Aaron said. “It’s expensive to fly our pilots and equipment to, say, the east coast for a job. It is difficult to compete with the drone operators on the east coast because we have to include travel costs.”

“We want to manage more equipment and scale up our operations and personnel and build our safety résumé more quickly. As I start scaling up, I’ll be looking at Skyward’s Pilot Finder.”

Fortunately, Aaron has worked at POWER for 17 years, so he was able to anticipate the challenges of scaling from the beginning. “We have excellent training documentation and our processes are dialed in, so it will be fairly easy to transfer that knowledge to new people. My biggest concern as we expand our drone ops: The oversight of pilots in other offices and making sure that everyone follows the right procedures. You only need one big mistake to put the whole thing in jeopardy. I’ve got my shortlist of people qualified to use the equipment. In order for us to scale up, I’m going to have to train many more people.”

Lesson #4: Start small but plan to scale.

Day-to-Day Operations

To date, POWER’s biggest project has been a transmission line in Arizona: The flight crew flew a 12-mile corridor north of Phoenix, which took 17 flights and four days.

“We’ve developed our own preflight checklist based on what senseFly had in their initial training, then supplemented it with the input of a pilot with traditional flight experience,” Aaron said.

POWER uses Skyward for flight planning, checking airspace, and tracking flights and flight hours. Aaron is especially looking forward to Skyward’s upcoming integration with eMotion, senseFly’s ground control station software.

“There are a few apps that do a lot of the same things, but it seems like Skyward is teaming up with the companies that I’m interested in and actively developing tools that will make crew resource management and documentation less work. The eMotion integration will save us a bunch of time,” he said.

Lesson #5: Don’t “wing” it—have a single system to manage your drone operations.