Drone infrastructure inspections are helping professionals in transportation, telecommunications, and energy and utilities conduct better, faster, more frequent infrastructure inspections. This is a transcript of Skyward’s webinar on Drones and the Future of Infrastructure Inspections.
Download and watch the multimedia presentation here for more on drone infrastructure inspections.
Transcript of Skyward’s Webinar on Drones and the Future of Infrastructure Inspections
Shannon Whitney: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for joining us today. On behalf of AUVSI, I am pleased to welcome you to today’s webinar — “Drones and the Future of Infrastructure Inspection.” My name is Shannon, and I’m the education manager at AUVSI and host of today’s webinar.
Before we get started I have a few housekeeping items note. All participants lines will be muted during today’s broadcast. A recording of the program will be emailed to all attendees and posted on AUVSI.org within the next few days. If you’re listening to the broadcasting and need assistance, please send a note to AUVSI support using the chat box on the right side of your screen. If you don’t see the chat box, click the chat bubble icon at the bottom center of the screen. This will open the chat box panel on the right side.
After the presentation, we’ll open up the presentation for Q&A. Attendees are encouraged to submit questions at any time throughout the webinar using the Q&A box on the right side of your screen, but please note that questions will only be answered at the end of the presentation. Also, the Q&A box is different from the chat box. So please submit all of your speaker content question using the Q&A box.
We have three excellent speakers with us this afternoon. First, we have Kyle Gustofson representing the utilities industry and Great River Energy. For the last five years, Kyle has been working as a transmission line engineer, and for the last three years he’s been leading and developing the UAS program at Great River. Next is Rodney Murray, representing network infrastructure. His company, Eagle Drones, provides aerial engineering and imaging services for the telecommunication and construction industry. He is an active member of NATE, National Association of Tower Erectors. Rodney is a long time customer and recently joined Skyward’s professional services team as a consultant. And finally we have Rachel Mulholland representing the transportation industry. Before moving to Portland to join Skyward, Rachel developed a UAS program at one of the world’s largest transportation companies. She’s now a project manager for Skyward’s Professional Services team.
So at this time I’d like to hand the presentation over to Sally Huynh. She will be moderating our webinar.
Sally Huynh: Thanks, Shannon. Thanks everyone for joining our webinar today, and thanks Shannon for the introduction. In addition to our panel, we have a few Skyward team members ready to answer your questions in the chat and Q&A box that Shannon just mentioned. So feel free to type those Q&A chats at any time, and we’re excited to partner with AUVSI on this topic.
You know, there’s been a lot of dialogue on our nation’s infrastructure this year, and with good reason, because with the population growth and the climate change, this problem continues to become a really costly one. In fact, according to ASCE, the U.S. would need to invest $3.8 trillion to improve the country’s infrastructure. And with that being said, there are opportunities to innovate on how we make or approach these improvements. And using drones is just one of them.
Commercial drones have provided various benefits to infrastructure inspections. And since these benefits are widely known, let’s get actual examples from our panelists. So I’m going to kick this off to our panelists: how have drones been a game changer for your respective industries? Each of you have been in your industries for numerous years, so what has been the biggest shift or the biggest change that drones have made on your industry? Rachel, maybe you could start us off.
Rachel Mulholland: Absolutely. Thank you, Sally. I think we’re all aware of the impact that drones have had on infrastructure, generally speaking. So as Sally said, I’ll launch into some specifics here. Drone definitely allow companies to conduct inspections in less time, which allows them to conduct more inspections per year or per quarter. More inspections can foster an increase in risk mitigation efforts and empowers companies to develop targeted solutions. Drone-enhanced inspections can also provide deeper insights into the current and historical state of a company’s infrastructure. I think that the drone industry has been around for long enough that we’re able to really look at the historical data that’s been gathered by drones and get a really deep dive into the current date of our infrastructure.
For example, a company with hundreds of miles of track or pipeline, that’s a lot of ground to cover by foot. Using drones, I’ve seen companies able to get a birds eye view of not just their own equipment, but also of the surrounding environment. This has been applied when you’re planning for the rainy seasons, or conversely the hot and dry seasons, or the high wildfire risk seasons. For rainy weather, I’ve seen companies evaluate the area surrounding their infrastructure such as railroad track to plan ahead of time and prioritize the amount of risk present at each location to come up with additional floodwater mitigation tactics as needed per location, and for taking a look at that erosion over time.
Similarly, for wildfire season, I’ve seen companies use drones to identify overgrowth of vegetation along their infrastructure such as railroad track, and then, again, prioritize those different locations based on the amount of vegetation overgrowth and the type of vegetation growth to identify which has the highest risk of wildfire. And then develop their proactive risk mitigation plan from there. So I’ve really seen drones increase those types of activities within the railroad industry for sure.
Sally Huynh: Yeah. What about you, Rodney? What have you seen is the biggest impact for the telecom industry using drones?
Rodney Murray: That’s a great question. I think really as a drone industry, and just industries in general, companies are really starting to begin to understand what that means. I think in the beginning there was a lot of speculation just looking at the potential of drones. But what I’m seeing now is all a lot more partnership between drone providers and people in the industry. Specifically in the telecom industry, if you think about it there’s over 120,000 communication towers in the U.S. alone —I think the number is more like 4 million worldwide. So it’s quite a lot of infrastructure. You’ve got a lot of construction, you’ve got a lot of maintenance, you’ve got a lot of engineering and designing going on this infrastructure. It takes crews, and traditionally in the past we’ve had a lot of tower crews physically climb the infrastructure. That puts people at risk. So I would say one of the big impacts of reasoning with drones is the reduction of tower crews on towers, and really just an improved overall safety.
I’ll give you real practical example: there’s a lot of safety systems that are on telecommunications towers. If you’re standing on the ground, it’s very difficult to see the very top part of that safety system that’s attached perhaps 200–300 feet in the air. Now we can deploy a drone. We can actually visually within minutes go up and inspect up that safety system from top to bottom. We can really inspect the whole structure. We can look for insects, birds, rust, any kind of deterioration that would cause an unsafe situation. So I think, overall, I would say one of the biggest impacts in the telecom industry is just the improved safety aspect.
Sally Huynh: Thanks for sharing, Rodney. What about you, Kyle? What has been the biggest impact for the utilities industry when it comes to using drones?
Kyle Gustofson: I’ll have to echo what Rodney said there — as a power utility, safety is really core to how we operate. And by the nature of our work, our field employees perform potentially dangerous work near high-voltage transmission lines. When we’re able to utilize drones to do some of that work, we’re able to keep our employees out of those at-risk situations. With UAS we’re able to capture better data in a more efficient process, which in turn helps us to respond issues quicker, while making more informed decisions.
Sally Huynh: Okay. So, if you’re making the move from traditional inspections to drones, ask yourself these questions: what area is going to provide the highest value or ROI? Are there assets at higher risk of failure that need quick attention? How am I going to compare data using traditional methods versus using drones?
Once you’ve figured out what your business goals are, you can start to build your drone program in a more strategic way. Fortunately, at Skyward we’ve identified five best practices that underpin every well-run drone program as a starting point.
The first — be strategic about your data collection. We cannot stress this enough. You can collect all the data you want, but if you don’t have a way to action on what you collect, what’s the point? Once you figure out the actionable data your drone program needs, then add on as your program matures where it makes the most business sense.
Rachel, when we spoke, you gave an amazing example of this with train derailments. Could you tell us a little bit more about the data you collected, and how did that improve the business outcome?
Rachel Mulholland: Absolutely. Class 1 railroads routinely experience service interruptions, also known as derailments. With large freight cars and service lines that extend across the entire nation, these instances are inevitable.
Derailments can range from minor to severe depending on where the event occurs, how many cars are involved, and ultimately why the event occurs. For major derailments, or instances where multiple cars are involved, and/or the event poses a safety risk to the surrounding community, cause-finding investigations are required. Freight trains can be over a mile in length, which means the derailment sights can be just as large, if not larger due to the way the cars fall. Without using drones, this process involves a lot of physical walking or driving around the turned-over cars. There can oftentimes be hazardous material on the ground and this can pose a risk to the crews out there doing the inspection. Without using drones, this process can also include a lot of interviews and fact-finding efforts with other portions of the company or external groups. The damages are often above eye-level, and equipment is commonly brought in to get people above the sites to get a better view.
So this is a great example of where drones were implemented, and they brought a great benefit. Using drones, I’ve seen a company be able to fly drones above a derailment site to get the bird’s-eye view of the damages, and then bringing that data back using strategic data collection methods. Then, using software to process that data, they were able to process it in a way that determines the exact cause.
In this particular case we did a 3D model rendering using some data captured using an advanced payload, and were able to pinpoint the exact moment in time that the derailment occurred. We identified the cause as what we called a faulty coupler, which is essentially the connector piece between two freight cars. It was a little bit older than other couplers, and the weight of the train in the front versus the back was offset in a way that, as it went down a specific hill of a certain degree, the physics were not balanced, and it caused the coupler to break, which then caused the train to derail.
This was a really, really amazing example of how we were able to determine the cause of the derailment in a way that not just mitigated that particular situation, but it also allowed us to make process improvements and company changes that could have potentially prevented many derailments in the future.
Sally Huynh: This leads us into our next poll question — what industry tools are you using to collect data? So take a few seconds to answer. You can select more than one; however, if you don’t see something that you use, select “Other” and then let us know in the chat box.
While you’re taking the time to answer, we’ll move on to our next best practice — protecting your data. Infrastructure data can be highly sensitive, like electrical grids, airports, pipelines. It can be a target for bad actors, and so it’s important for you to have some kind of security plan in place. Things you need to think of are existing software integrations, how are you planning to protect your data in multiple phases — and when I’m talking about multiple phases, I’m talking about collection, transfer, reporting, storage, even archiving: how are you planning to archive the data that you collect?
Third, have a plan for regulatory compliance. Drone program managers need a way to manage the internal corporate and regulatory compliance. While the actual risk presented to commercial drone operations are small compared to the risks within heavy industry, the potential consequences to the organization are still real. It could be your company’s public relations nightmare. And that’s why corporate drone programs need consistent methods of ensuring compliance.
Rachel, when you had developed that large UAS program, you told me that you have over 450 pilots. How did you ensure that all the pilots stayed in compliance?
Rachel Mulholland: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. We did have over 450 individuals in that program. It was crucial for us to tie our drone program management fleet data software into our legacy enterprise data system, using employee IDs where possible to keep it consistent across all the different tools that we needed to manage our fleet and our large group of employees. I can’t stress this enough — definitely connecting with your HR group and looping them in and trying to link your data management for your drone with your HRIS, or your HR information system database, will definitely save you a lot of time and a lot of heartache. So that’s how we went about it. That’s also a good way to track the credentials for your employees and maintain compliance on other fronts.
Sally Huynh: Which leads us into our fourth best practice — mitigating risk. As Rachel mentioned, knowing who your pilots are, you’ll be able to create that culture of safety when it comes to scaling your drone program. Many companies have established internal regulatory regulations designed to protect themselves from loss or liability. Your company’s risk mitigation program or plan should include some kind of safety management system, drone insurance, integrating those risk mitigation tactics into your workflows. You should also use past data to help you improve on future processes, and then maintain that audit trail throughout. This also could include finding a way to track your pilots, plus their credentials as Rachel mentioned, along with the equipment and maintenance.
Rodney, could you give an actual example of how you or the companies you’ve worked for have mitigated risk in the telecom industry?
Rodney Murray: Yeah, sure. So, you make the assumption that most companies that work in and around critical infrastructure already have a fairly good understanding of the nature of the environment, the inherent risks. Most companies already have a well-established safety policy and training program in place, but if you are considering adding drones, starting up your own drone program internally or you have drones, this part needs to be incorporated into your safety policy and training.
For example, I work with a lot of telecom industry experts, and I’m part of NATE as you mentioned earlier. NATE is one of the associations for the tower industry, and we have actually going on five years now a UAS committee that’s part of this industry association. And I’ve worked alongside a lot of drone folks and a lot of tower people on this. One of the biggest drivers for this committee is to create a higher level of awareness that drones now provide an inherent new risk to the industry. So for the last couple years really we’ve been focused on just devising and developing some guidelines for that, that go above and beyond the Part 107. The Part 107, I think a lot of folks throw that around there and say, “Hey, I’m a part 107 pilot,” but that’s just really the beginning. That doesn’t really go into any industry-specific safety practices or best practices. So here’s just a few.
I think that when you get onsite, the crews need to perform an on-site assessment. Now in the telecom industry, a lot of folks refer to that as a job hazard assessment. Those don’t necessarily include any drone operations. So if you’re adding drone operations to your on-site work, then you need to have pre-flight planning and all that, but you need to also just include any additional risks or any new risks that come about flying drones in and around tower space.
And then make sure you have a program that trains your employees on the specific things. Another point is just flying the aircraft around the towers, identifying obstacles such as guy wires that are very difficult to see standing on the ground, or actually very difficult to judge in terms of depth perception if you’re flying. A lot of times the obstacle avoidance systems don’t pick them up so that’s an additional hazard that you wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise.
Of course, impact of weather. If you’re flying around the tower if the wind is coming one direction and then you fly to the other side of the tower, you might be facing into the wind one one side and then have the wind pushing your drone into the tower on the other side. So take into account for weather.
Another point would be just coordinating your drone operations with other people working, other personnel crews working on the site. You can have tower crews already there. You could have drones, you could have crane operations, you could have rigging operations going on. Many of the tower owners now are just starting to say that you can’t have more than one crew working on the site at the same time. It may be that you actually have tower crews and drone crews working together, so coordination is required.
I think another example just understanding the RF environment and the electromagnetic interference that could impact radio control between the drone and the RC and the ground control. Those are all some things there. I think as we move forward is an industry we will begin then to uncover more risks that could be identified and incorporated into the safety policy.
Sally Huynh: Thanks, Rodney. I appreciate the best practices within this best practice. And lastly, keeping up with emerging technology. If you’ve been in this industry for a while, you know that the drone integration space is moving pretty quickly. For example, cellular connected drones and 5G technology is coming, and this is going to open up new capabilities which we’ll discuss later on.
When I attended an event last month, someone made this comment, and I couldn’t agree more: if you think about 5G like 4G LTE and smartphones, they’ve enabled companies like Uber, for example, to transform the taxi industry. The same thing with 5G—5G will also transform various industries in ways we can’t even imagine. Make sure you’re laying the foundation for your drone program to be thoughtful enough that it can adopt new technologies as it makes sense for your business.
So Rodney, in your experience in the telecom industry, what ways is it important to keep up with the change in innovation?
Rodney Murray: That’s the million-dollar question, right? I think we’re really beginning to see a lot of practical solutions where some of this emerging technology—AI, automation, machine learning, a lot of the sensor improvements—things like that are starting to have a big impact. Nowadays, just even in the last year or two, you’re starting to see innovation around collision-tolerant drones, multisensor, multi-camera arrays, just improved sensors overall, RTK and other types of geolocation tracking systems. I think a big one that’s coming up is a AI and automated flight. I think those two can actually work hand-in-hand. I think one of the areas that I see a huge amount of improvement is just the analytics software that’s coming out. So now we’re able to do tower mappings and audit inspections without actually putting a crew on the tower. That’s that’s kind of been a pipe dream, I think, but now we’re starting to see some real innovation in that area, so I would say in the next few years were gonna see fully autonomous flight, mostly driven by AI. We’re gonna see some real spatial computing and a lot of things that allow us to look at these environments with a higher degree of resolution of a higher degree of accuracy. So stay tuned. I think that’s one of the big innovation pushes you’re gonna see in the next few years.
Sally Huynh: And the best way to see how an enterprise can benefit from drones and put all of these best practices that I just mentioned in use is to hear from an industry expert. So today, we’re lucky to be joined by Kyle from Great River Energy. Kyle has been instrumental in getting his company’s drone program off the ground so let’s start by, Kyle tell us about Great River Energy and your role there.
Kyle Gustofson: Thank you for having me today. Great River Energy currently operates more than 4,820 miles of transmission lines with over 3000 MW of generation. Our UAS program was formalized in 2018. We currently have seven employees who are FAA Part 107 certified, and they’re authorized to operate our fleet of twelve different drones across our service territory.
The driver behind use of UAS at Great River Energy is really delivering value, either through dollars saving, safety improvements, or through the capture of higher-quality data. The photos shown on the screen are just a few examples from some of the projects that deliver us value. All of these projects capture better data than we previously had, and we’re able to capture that data in a more efficient and safer process.
During the development of our UAS program at Great River Energy, we’ve been very intentional to follow the crawl-walk-run process. The program started out through the voluntary use of UAS, with a view to determine how a drone can support our business needs and understand what value the use of UAS technology could provide to us. During the walking stage we focused on mitigating the risk of using UAS and supporting the different areas of our business through the use of the UAS technology. Currently, we’re in the run stage, where we’re working to scale our operations to add more pilot, continue to keep an eye on the latest technologies, and understanding where those technologies fit our business needs. During this time we are beginning to explore more advanced operations, and we’re focusing on the workflows that leverage UAS technology and become an essential tool to support our business operations.
Great River Energy has a process to evaluate all of our use cases prior to starting a project. This process helps us to focus on capturing the data that will provide us with business value. In an effort to minimize the amount of data collected and reduce costs, we’re in the process of developing an internal training program to train our subject matter experts in the field to fly drones and capture the data.
This past year we developed backend processes and rules for data management and workflow, and on our roadmap we’ll continue to develop and refine those processes and tools. As the development in autonomous flight and AI continues, we believe that this is an area where we’re gonna be able to continue to make improvements in our operations. An example from training an SME on the picture shown here: we’re looking at that spring on that long interface spacer that’s broken. We’re able to catch that with one photo when we send a subject matter expert out there. If we were to just send a traditional drone pilot out there who doesn’t know what they’re looking for, we may come back with 50 photos, and we’re wasting data space and time on that.
Last year with the UAS program at Great River Energy we engaged with the internal and external IT and cybersecurity teams to evaluate potential threats in vulnerable areas, and we worked with them to deploy solutions to mitigate the risks through new hardware, software, and procedures. One of the items that we identified during the meetings was that we needed to be protecting our equipment and access to our equipment—not just the files and data. As much as we can, we participate in industry events to understand the concerns and solutions that other industry folks are facing in regards to UAS data and security.
Our plan to meet regulatory compliance started by creating a connection with our legal team. We felt it was important to reach out to the legal experts and make sure that we didn’t have any unknown items or issues when we were building our program. The legal team also continues to monitor and support our program as the regulations change. Procedures and policies are an important piece to ensure that we maintain compliance at all times, and it is extremely important to have tools in place to help maintain the compliance as you begin to scale your program. We believe that it is important for us to have systems and tools in place to continue to educate and train our UAS team on regulatory compliance, both internally and externally.
The main focus points for Great River Energy’s UAS program include mitigating risk and exploring new technologies and developing capabilities. We work very close with our risk and insurance department to make sure that we have the proper insurance in place and understand the potential risk vulnerabilities that we need to address. In an effort to mitigate risk, our teams decided to use the Skyward platform to standardize our checklists and planning and integrate safety into our workflow of UAS operations. We are currently in the process of finalizing our SOPs and developing our internal UAS training program. We spend time understanding what our internal capabilities are, and when we have the need to develop our capabilities, and when it makes sense to utilize third-party consultants. We are an energy cooperative and not an aviation company, and we make decisions with that in mind to help us avoid unnecessary risks.
Great River Energy attends industry events and is focused on staying current with emerging tech. We evaluate the opportunity for emerging tech to provide improvements in the value that we currently receive from UAS, and then identify where it makes sense for us to jump in. From the utility perspective, we believe that beyond visual line of sight, AI, and autonomous flights offer the greatest potential for future improvements to the value of UAS. We also understand that there are other advancements that are improving on a smaller scale that can help improve our operations and leverage the benefits of UAS technology today.
One of the areas we feel there is an opportunity for future development of the UAS technology is in the airframes. Due to the climate and environment in which we operate, we believe that when the airframes are able to stay in the air for longer periods of time, in higher winds and more adverse weather conditions, we will be able to significantly increase the use and complexity of our UAS operations.
One of the most important lessons that we’ve learned is that purchasing a UAS or drone didn’t mean that we had a program. To be successful there are many building blocks that are essential to developing the foundation for a successful program. We identified the future goals and uses as we developed the procedures and processes for the program.
A common theme throughout all my slides — I can’t stress enough how important it is — for us to partner with other groups within our organization. We have experts internally in the legal, insurance, risk, and IT departments that saved us a lot of time and money developing the foundation for our program. There are a few instances where it would’ve been helpful to reach out even earlier than we did so that we weren’t going back to fix areas where we had holes, but rather those experts could support development the first time through. The items that we partnered on, rather than that we were audited with, went much smoother.
We have been finding the importance of understanding UAS workflow and how we can improve and become more efficient and capture better data, but also understand how the UAS workflow interacts with the existing business workflows within our organization.
Sally Huynh: Thanks so much, Kyle, for sharing that, which leads us into our next poll question. So after hearing from Kyle and the process it took for him to develop his company’s UAS program, we want to know: what challenges are you facing in building a drone program? Again, you can select more than one answer. You can also share in the chat with other challenges you’re facing in addition to what’s listed. So just take a few seconds to answer while we move on.
When we think about preparing for the future of drone operations, we want to envision what that actually looks like with these four main areas in mind. And I know Rodney touched on each of these earlier in his answer, but we want to look at areas such as artificial intelligence, connectivity, BVLOS, and autonomy. As evident with Kyle, Rodney, and Rachel, the infrastructure spans in so many ways. So I’ll talk about today and the future, specifically to long-distance asset inspections as the focus.
Today, companies use both manned aircraft and drones for aerial inspections. For the U.S. companies operating under Part 107, the pilot has to maintain visual line of sight at all times, and depending on the terrain and distance, sometimes it’s more cost-effective to use a plane or a helicopter. But if a drone is being used, the pilot might drive hundreds of miles collecting this data, and that data then gets stored on laptops or external hard drives or company servers. If lack of time or expertise is not in the field, that data has to go back to the office to get analyzed actioned on.
So I’m describing what’s typically happening today. The drone is simply a tool in the toolbox. Its primary value in many cases is that it’s cheaper than using manned aircraft and safer than traditional methods used to collect the data.
Let’s look at the near future, maybe five years from now. Connection to a wireless network can facilitate safe deployment beyond a pilot’s visual line of sight. So if a US company receives a BVLOS waiver from the FAA, they could remotely deploy drones from miles away to inspect hundreds of miles of assets. Because drones are connected to the network, they can send that data that’s being collected back to the office in near real-time for further analysis. Then someone could use that software to compare images from the last inspection and then spot the difference or spot those defects.
So this is clearly more efficient than the standard line of site operation that we’re experiencing today, but let’s take it one step further. We know that the airspace of the future will be more complex than it is now. I mean imagine hundreds or even thousands of 5G connected drones inspecting assets at regular intervals. This all will be managed in a safe and secure fashion. Equipped with remote ID, deconfliction technology, AI sensors, this will allow drones to avoid collisions with other aircraft and can be tracked by regulators. Drones can also be launched autonomously into airspace governed by UTM, or universal traffic management system, to ensure the safe sharing of the airspace by all aircraft. And AI software can guide the drones and detect potential damage and problem areas. It could even ID the nature of the problem and recommend the needed repair, and then data collected could also be streamed back to the office in near real-time. Then, the drone is no longer just a tool. These connected drones because a transformative, cost-lowering, irreplaceable aspect of the company’s operations.
Rodney, from a more vertical perspective, what do you think the telecom industry could stand to gain from connected drones?
Rodney Murray: Yeah, I think what you were just saying is some great points. When we think of connected drones, we often think of control of the drone or navigation of the drones, but I think one of the big advantages of a connected drone is extending real-time expertise from the home office, say engineering, via live streaming technology. Somebody in the field can deploy a drone on-site in a remote location, and then the engineering quality assurance manager or whomever back in the home office can actually have real-time access and visualization of what’s there.
I’ll give you an example in the industry: in the telecom industry, there’s a term called VCOP which is a virtual closeout package, or documentation. So this is a process that allows an engineering quality assurance manager to verify that the construction work has been done and done completely, so it’s making sure it’s up to standard. So today we have some technology that leverages cell phones and things like that, but I see with drones the actual ability to close that loop, really cutting down on that time, that process that it takes for a quality assurance manager or engineer to verify that the work has been completed correctly, signed off, and then the crews are free to leave the site. So I think you save potentially days, hours, time, and money by doing it this way. I think that’s probably one of the things I see in industry that could really enhance our ability, especially as we’re talking about building out the 5G network that eventually the drones will be using. So that’s a real practical example there.
Sally Huynh: And you know we’re testing for the future right now. So whether we’re testing on 5G or 4G LTE, aviation grade connectivity cannot be tested in a lab. Skyward is planning to set up two aviation development centers, one on the West Coast and one on the East Coast to show our customers the future. And these are places for Verizon, Skyward, our customers and partners to test technologies like 5G and MEC, or mobile edge computing. We’ll be using them to conduct our own R&D, as well as help our customers prove out their own innovative concepts in a controlled environment.
So, whether you’re interested in testing advanced use cases or you’re just trying to build up your drone operations, Skyward is here to help you unlock these values. And if you’re not familiar with Skyward, we provide an operational platform that allows complete oversight and overview for you to safely and efficiently scale your drone program. Or if you need help procuring hardware like drones, tablets, batteries, we sell the latest equipment and accessories, and we can package that together and provide training for your team as well.
I’ve already talked about our aviation development centers and connectivity, but we also provide professional services, which Rachel will talk about next.
Rachel Mulholland: Yes, thank you. So, not to be biased because this is my team, but our professional services team is excellent. Rodney is also part of that team, and we are a team of experts that have been in the drone industry is various different ways for several years. There’s a lot of experience and depth on our team. So I’m always interested to see the diverse ways that our customers come in and leverage the professional services team here at Skyward.
Broadly speaking, we help companies get up and running right away. We want to make sure that our customers are avoiding pitfalls that can be common to new drone operations, and we want to help them maximize their return on investment. In practice, this can look like us helping a company develop a proof of concept for something a bit more advanced, training their team to get a drone program up off the ground, helping to create efficient, low-risk workflows, and then working with the FAA and other regulatory bodies to make sure that the operations are within compliance. One example that may be just going out there and helping a company get waiver.
Sally Huynh: If you have any interest in what was discussed today, take the time to answer this last poll question. Again you can check more than one. Our Skyward team will be in touch after this webinar. We also will send out our latest ebook on infrastructure inspection. We covered a lot of information today, but whatever was covered today will also be covered in this ebook. So look for our email, then, which you’ll receive after this webinar.
And that’s all we have! And so we’re gonna open it up for audience questions. All right. So we get this question a lot: can I only have BVLOS flights with 5G. Absolutely not. I mean, 5G is going to unlock a lot of capabilities, but we can already do so much with 4G LTE including BVLOS. In fact, our Aviation Network Team a couple of months ago tested in Nevada a BVLOS flight over 4G LTE. And so if you’re interested in learning more about that, our team can reach out to you, or send us a message in the chat in the QA box.
Next question: what type of systems would you need to start a drone inspections program? Maybe Rodney, you can take this one.
Rodney Murray: Yeah, that’s a good question. It’s a bit of a loaded question, I think, because I would say that you start with the output. Start with the deliverable and work your way back from there. So, if you’re doing, for example, in the telecom industry, as carriers upgrade networks, they’re gonna look for mount analysis and structure analysis. That requires a very specific type of data. They’re looking for measurement data, they’re looking for thicknesses of steel, they’re looking for length of members, they’re looking for how many radios and antennas and what positions they’re in. So in that case, there’s a couple away you can go about it. I’d say the lowest entry level would be of a small drone that’s able to take photographs and then document that into a traditional report. All the way to the other end of the spectrum where you have a 3D model, a 3D analysis, which would take a platform that has the capabilities of carrying a heavier payload, maybe RTK, more sensitive sensors and cameras on there.
So, I’d say the generic answer that question would be: do your homework, figure out what the deliverable is, and work your way back from there.
Sally Huynh: Another question came in: what factors contribute to large enterprise asset owners making the decision to outsource drone operations versus building their own internal UAS program. It comes down to a few factors. First: cost, data quality, operational control—if you only need to collect aerial data at few times of year, it may not be that cost-effective to hire a full-time team. Likewise, an aerial service provider may have an expertise in certain types of flights and certain data analysis. So it could be useful to outsource certain operations even if you do have an internal UAS program. And finally, operation operational control. Depending on the type of assets you have, your corporate lawyers and risk managers may want to ensure that your company maintains complete control over your flight operations. And that’s including insurance policies and standard operating procedures.
And one other note: subcontracting can be really helpful when you’re scaling up. Outsourcing is a great option when it doesn’t make sense to send your crew and equipment to a location, or the job requires specialized hardware, knowledge, or data handling.
Next question: how are you training your teams to comply with the latest FAA regulations? Rachel, I think you touched on that a bit when you were discussing about managing 450 pilots. How did you get them to comply with the latest regulations?
Rachel Mulholland: That’s a great question. I echo what Kyle was explaining with a cross-functional approach to the drone program—having your legal team involved, as I mentioned, integrating with the HRIS database, and leveraging the expertise that’s already within your enterprise is really going to enable your drone-specific team to stay up-to-date on the latest FAA regulatory changes. You want to have someone who is keeping tabs on any updates through the FAA website, participating in drone industry events, and making sure that any advisory circulars that go out that are relevant to your operations are ingested by your company as quickly as possible.
Another way to make sure they’re in compliance is to leverage a tool like Skyward where you can actually look at who’s flying, what type of drone are they flying, and you really have direct access to: “Is their 107 certification current? Are they required to do testing again soon to refresh their 107? Are they flying within airspaces that are accurate and open for that, and if not, did they submit their LAANC request?” I can tell you firsthand, trying to manage a program with 450 employees without having a fleet management software program like Skyward can just create a lot of manual labor. It’s certainly possible, I suppose, but I just really don’t recommend it. It gets really messy. So definitely just keeping on top of the regulations as they change and having a process in place for communicating that out to your pilots.
Sally Huynh: Another question: are the industry reps on the panel concerned at all about using Chinese drones to conduct surveys given the recent data security concerns? I’ll take that one. Skyward products are designed to protect customer data, and we are all well-positioned to mitigate any threats that DHS might identify concerning the country or origin of OEMs concerned. As a first step, we recommend using Skyward InFlight. It’s our mobile GCS system when flying drones. Skyward’s InFlight mobile app for iOS generates a unique log file that is not shared with the drone manufacturer, and it cannot be accessed by DJI Go 4, DJI Pilot, or DJI GS Pro. Data collected and logged by InFlight is stored temporarily on a local drive—iPad or iPhone—and then upon the completion of the flight, the log is uploaded directly to Skyward where it’s stored and accessible. Currently, the data collected by InFlight is used only to produce a telemetry representation the flight. Each flight log can be viewed in your Skyward account by navigating to the Flight Details. If you’re interested in using Skyward InFlight, again, reach out to our team, and we’ll be in touch.
Let’s see. What’s a common pitfall or biggest mistake when starting a drone program? Rodney, do you want to take this one?
Rodney Murray: Sure. You know, I would probably echo Kyle’s comment about, just because you go out by a drone doesn’t equate to having a drone program. I think education is probably the biggest pitfall that I see—or lack thereof. Understand what your drone program has to become and how to use it. Again, I think generally, notionally, people get the idea of “I should have a drone at my company. I see the value of it.” But they don’t really understand aviation, they don’t understand how to operate the drone safely, how to manage it. And we talked about that to a large degree.
But then I think on the other side of the coin, you’ve got a lot of drone companies and drone pilots that don’t understand the industry that the infrastructure’s in. I see that that’s a common error as well. It’s sort of an assumption of, “Hey, I’ve got my 107, I can fly a drone, therefore all of a sudden I’m an expert on telecommunication towers and electrical transmission infrastructure. I think there’s got to be a real partnership between the industries and the drone world, and I think that companies like Great River have identified that early on and decided to build a drone program based on aviation best practices.
Sally Huynh: Yeah. And Kyle, I know that you mentioned some of the lessons learned, but maybe if you can share with the audience what was the biggest mistake or the most common pitfall that you experienced when starting a drone program.
Kyle Gustofson: I think that, again, reaching out to other departments within your organization is probably the most important piece, and doing that early on, because there’s a lot of expertise they can help you. I think that’s an area we’re looking at. Also, from an operational standpoint, I saw one of the questions come in about: will it be SMEs becoming drone pilots or drone pilots becoming SMEs? From our standpoint, the training that it takes to become an SME in the utility industry is a lot more difficult than for us to teach the aviation side of it, to get in the low barrier entry to operate UAS once you have that subject matter expert in the field. Partnering with your subject matter experts in the field and understanding with their workflows are is very important as you develop your procedures and your operations.
And then also, getting support from the executive team within your organizations. I think that that’s extremely important. And as bumps come and you hit bumps in the road as you’re developing, it is nice to have that support behind you. You see the value that’s in it, and it helps to move forward when some of those events do happen.
Rachel Mulholland: Yeah, this is Rachel. I would absolutely echo exactly what Kyle just said. I had the same experience with building a large program at a corporation, and so I can’t stress that enough to this audience: engage a cross functional team right out of the gate. I think if I could go back and do it all over again, I would’ve started with that strategy, and I think working with your SMEs and working internally is really gonna save a lot of people a lot of time
Sally Huynh: And to that, a question came in: what you see is the biggest threat to the longevity of the drone programs and drone tech in general.
Rachel Mulholland: I can definitely share my thoughts, and then I don’t know if anyone else on the panel has thoughts. I would say that I see a lot of companies collecting large amounts of data without, perhaps, having the plan in place of how to organize the data, how to process the data. How long are you gonna retain the data? What’s your record retention policy? There’s all these little nitpicky things that have to be thought about, and that I think that probably having a lot of data but maybe not making the best use of it leaves companies at risk of failing to show the return on investment for their program which can cause executives to lose patience or investors to get anxious as well. I think from my personal perspective, that’s probably what I would say could be the biggest threat to longevity of drone programs, which would be management of data. I don’t know if Kyle or Rodney, you have different thoughts?
Rodney Murray: I think that’s a good point, Rachel. I think the other sort of a risk or threat—and unfortunately we can’t really control this—but there’s a lot of aviation drone pilots out there that are not educated, do not operate safe, and they tend to make the headlines. If you’re in a risk-adverse environment, it could just take one big headline to really change things down.
Things that we can control internally in our own programs: making sure that everybody’s trained, making sure you have processes and protocols in place, and they’re operated. I think when people get comfortable and lax, then there’s an issue. That issue can then be escalated, and that could potentially end your drone program.
Kyle Gustofson: I would agree with both of you. I think both of those are probably the top two threats to what we see as potential enders to our drone program. That would be mismanagement of data—if we’re capturing the data and we aren’t getting business value of it on the back end, there’s really no point in us going on capturing it. And then I totally agree that if we’re not focusing on training our pilots and making sure we have the right people that are operating and that we’re not going beyond, or others in the industry as well, aren’t creating those headlines, that’s gonna be a potential area where we can see this getting shut down.
Sally Huynh: Yeah, and I think that it’s less of an issue of longevity, but how fast we can unlock even more use cases. When Skyward was founded back in 2012, it was illegal to fly drones, and today there are over 120,000 commercial pilots in the U.S. So I think it’s more about developing scalable programs that will continue to bring value than the concern of drone tech’s longevity.
All right, next question: what types of sensors are being used for infrastructure inspections? Is there a need for standardization, or will that inhibit creativity and technical advancement? Rodney, maybe we can start this off with you?
Rodney Murray: Yeah, that’s a really good question. We continue to see advancements in the sensor area. I think the vast majority of data collected in and around the tower infrastructure area right now is probably photogrammetry and photography, so visual data collection. But I think that thermal and LiDAR have some interesting opportunities. I think there are a lot of developments particularly around the LiDAR—it’s expensive and it’s more difficult. There’s a lot of discussion about which camp all the analytic data falls into. I think I probably fall into more the photogrammetry type of camp. I’ve seen some pretty impressive technology that can take a very high degree of the optical sensor-collected data in a very sequential and automated way and then process that through some very powerful analytic software—3D modeling, 3D analytics, surface defect detection—things like that, driven by AI. I think that has a lot of promise, and I do see that taking the lead. I believe that will be probably the lead horse.
Sally Huynh: What about you, Kyle? I know you mentioned the maintenance of your equipment, so what types of sensors is Great River Energy using for inspection?
Kyle Gustofson: Currently, we will utilize the visual cameras. We do photogrammetry, we’ve got some high-zoom cameras that allow us to get in very close on some of the high-voltage components with keeping our equipment pretty far away from it. We’re also looking at the potential of bringing on LiDAR. We’ve utilized a corona camera in the past. So I understand the potential need for some standardization, but I think that each of the different industries are gonna have different needs, whether it’s LiDAR, corona, I’ve seen some gas detection being put on UAS now, so I think that the creativity is gonna continue to grow and help with the use cases. And the more sensors that we can put on these aircraft, I think the more value we’re gonna ultimately get out of them.
Sally Huynh: Yeah, absolutely. All right, I think that’s it for questions. We are out of time. We had so many questions come in for our panelists, so what we’ll do is we’ll compile the top questions and then we’ll send them out in an email, or we’ll reach out to you personally to get your questions answered. Thank you so much for attending our webinar. Thank you to AUVSI for partnering with Skyward on this amazing topic. Shannon, did you have anything before we close this out?
Shannon Whitney: Yeah, Sally, thanks so much. As they said, we have run out of time for today. So on behalf of the AUVSI, I’d also like to thank you, Sally, Rachel, Rodney, and Kyle for your excellent presentations and discussions today. And like Sally said, she’ll reach out again with questions to be answered. You will also all receive a link to access the webinar recording within the next few days. And please be sure to visit our website, AUVSI.org for a complete list of upcoming programs and services, including other upcoming webinars. And if you have any additional questions or comments, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Lastly, today’s program is copyrighted by AUVSI with all rights reserved. So once again, thank you to everybody in the audience, and thank you for a great discussion with our speakers today. Have a great afternoon.