In this webinar, Southern Company’s Chief UAS Pilot Corey Hitchcock joined Skyward’s Christie Wolgamott and Tera Schroeder to talk about the future of cellular-connected drones in the energy and utilities industry.
Click here to watch the recording and download the slides, or read the transcript below.
Christie Wolgamott (00:00)
Hi, everyone, and welcome to today’s webinar, Drones, Connectivity, and Operations of the Future. I’m Christie Wolgamott, the Senior Event Marketing Manager here at Skyward, and I’ll be moderating our discussion.
Before we dive in, take a moment to answer our first poll and let us know where you currently are with your drone program. We’ll be recording this webinar and sending out a copy of the slides to all registrants. We also have some time allotted at the end for answering your questions. If you’re looking for additional information or would like to reach out to our team, you can do so through our website at skyward.io.
Today, I’m joined by two fantastic panelists. First, we have Corey Hitchcock with Southern Company. Welcome, Corey. Can you tell us just a little bit about your background?
Corey Hitchcock (00:57)
Hey Christie. I’m Corey Hitchcock, the Chief UAS Pilot for Southern Company. We’re housed in the corporate aviation department. I oversee the development of methods, doctrine, and safety for the UAS fleet across Southern Company. My background includes 10 years of transmission and distribution line experience as a lineman for Georgia Power. While serving as a paratrooper in the Georgia National Guard, I was exposed to UAS and immediately saw the significance of the technology and its potential for use across many industries in the civilian world.
In 2015, upon my completion of service, I returned to Southern Company and became a student of the UAS industry by becoming involved in the early chapter 333 days of UAS use at Southern Company. In 2016, I obtained a Part 107 certificate and later my Part 61 certificate. I’m excited to work for Southern Company, an early adopter of UAS technology, and I’ve been happy to see the innovation across all aspects of our business and the benefits of the technology to our customers and business become a reality.
Christie Wolgamott (02:01)
Awesome. Thanks for joining us, Corey. Next we have Tera Schroeder from Skyward. Hi, Tera. Go ahead and introduce yourself.
Tera Schroeder (2:10)
Thanks Christie. I’m Tera Schroeder, the Connected Aircraft Product Manager here at Skyward. I’m responsible for connecting drones to the Verizon Network and to Skyward Services. What we’re really trying to do is make it easier for customers to fly drones farther to collect more data.
I come from a strong aviation background. I’m a pilot myself. I have 18 years of experience working in traditional aviation. I’ve designed systems and operational procedures for big aircraft, like the Boeing 737 and 787, and the Embraer E2 jets, and for business jets, like the Gulfstream G6, and Bombardier Global. Now I get to work on drones! And working on finding new ways of connecting these aircraft and making them easier to fly.
I’m really excited to be part of Skyward, because I see that the work that we’re doing here as being on the leading edge of aviation.
Christie Wolgamott (03:12)
Thanks, Tera. Great to have you with us today. Before we dive into our topic, I want to cover just a few quick logistics for all of our attendees. Feel free at any point to ask questions in the chat and Q&A boxes. In the chat box, be sure to select “All Panelists and Attendees” if you want everyone to get your message. In addition to our panel, we have a few Skyward team members ready to answer your questions in the chat or they’ll pass them along to our panelists to address during the live Q&A at the end.
Some of you submitted questions in advance that we’ll also address in the Q&A. If we don’t get to your question, we’ll be sending follow-up materials after the webinar to answer any top questions. As mentioned, you’ll also receive a recording and slides from this presentation. Now that we’re through that, let’s go ahead and jump into our topic.
Keeping the power on is a dangerous business, especially for workers who are 100 feet off the ground, near high voltage power sources and flammable materials, and in confined spaces. It’s no wonder Southern Company and its subsidiaries were among the first energy companies to embrace advanced technologies such as drones to reduce the risk of serious injuries and fatalities and to prevent outages.
Recently, Southern Company performed a large scale demonstration of their drone program. Using a custom built system on the Skyward platform, they were able to track all their aircraft including drones and helicopters and crew members across several states as the flights took place, allowing them to oversee operations from dispersed homes and offices.
Corey, can you tell us what we’re looking at here and why it’s important?
Corey Hitchcock (05:07)
Yeah. This is a graphical representation of the map that’s housed in Skyward. What you see here is one of our helicopters, a company helicopter and a couple of drones operating around the Birmingham area. During this test, we flew two helicopters, one in Atlanta and one in Birmingham, and had about 51 drones flying across the system at different times. Our helicopters were able to see the drones on the ground through their Situational Awareness Tool in the cockpit, and then our pilots on the ground, our drone pilots were able to see the helicopters, and then the folks back at the control center back in the office were able to see both.
This Situational Awareness System is super important for us, because we do a lot of work with helicopters and drones in a storm restoration type space. It’s important for us to increase the level of safety by understanding where those helicopters are near real-time, and understanding where the drones are near real-time, which allows us to separate them from each other.
Christie Wolgamott (06:25)
Thanks for sharing that with us, Corey. It’s really exciting to get a sneak peek into Southern Company’s complex drone operations that are preparing for the future of cellular connected drones. But before we get into future state, let’s talk about how drones are currently being used. Corey, would you share with us some of Southern Company’s most common drone use cases?
Corey Hitchcock (06:50)
Sure. I’d say the most common use case across the company and probably the first one we started investigating is our vertical infrastructure inspections. We do a lot of work in transmission with drones. We’ve begun to do work in distribution doing reliability patrols by using thermal scans of switches and other devices on the line to identify thermal breakdown or the failing components prior to the component failing and the power going out.
In addition to that, we’ve started to replace our comprehensive aerial inspections, so our helicopter inspections across transmission, with drone-based inspection. We’re either augmenting those helicopter inspections where the helicopter would find an issue, and the drone goes and gets a little bit more surgical, or we replace the helicopter and go do it with the drone crew.
Our next probably biggest use case is mapping. We’re starting to map everything across our system in all disciplines, from substation engineering, distribution engineering, facility construction. We’re mapping shoreline management for change detection. There’s a lot of things we’re doing and we’re starting to see a lot of value in that type of data.
I’d say the fastest growing drone application that we’re conducting right now is the operation of drones inside of radiological control areas of our nuclear fleet. We’ve been operating drones in those areas to reduce the amount of dose and exposure to the employee.
In addition to that use case, we’ve been pulling rope across obstacles. That’s a water obstacle or mountain valley obstacle. We’ve pulled rope in Puerto Rico. That was the first time we did that use case during the Hurricane Maria restoration and pulled in about 72,000 feet of rope over about 150 missions, saving about a month’s worth of work time. We’re able to get the lights on about a month ahead of schedule in some of those places.
Christie Wolgamott (09:02)
Thanks, Corey. Those were all great use case examples that are delivering real ROI today. In the future, when connecting drones to wireless networks becomes more common, we’ll see adoption and use cases expand dramatically.
So, why is connectivity so important? One of the biggest benefits to cellular connectivity on aircraft is in enabling BVLOS flight on a wide scale. By making use of networks that companies like Verizon have already invested into, we’re able to connect the pilot over the network to a drone from miles away.
With 5G, managing the airspace will look a lot like managing the network. We plan to introduce aviation grade connectivity, along with our fleet management services so our customers can safely and efficiently manage flying sensors on the edge of the network. With connectivity, we expect to see near real-time data acquisition, remote autonomous deployment, and one-to-many drone operations.
Today, drones are useful as flying sensors. But with 5G, drones can become much more. They may be able to transport us to work and ship cargo and bring vital supplies to remote locations, as well as our doorsteps. For us at Skyward, it’s pretty cool that as part of Verizon, we can help to build the infrastructure and services that could unlock all those new opportunities for innovation.
You may be asking, what’s the difference between 4G, LTE, and 5G. 4G and LTE are both used fairly interchangeably in marketing today to indicate the current iteration of technology our phones use right now. 5G is the next generation of wireless technology.
Tera, what more can you tell us about 5G and what it means for drone operations?
Tera Schroeder (11:06)
Thanks, Christie. 5G is going to be really cool for drones. It can offer up to 20 times the data speeds, and a reduction of latency. We can also see things like some special network infrastructure evolution that pushes computing to the edge of the network to make it really fast. This means that data won’t need to travel all the way to a cloud for computing and processing. With 5G you’ll also see improvements in reliability and support for 2.6 million devices per square kilometer and a whole lot more.
The rollout of 5G has a lot of phases and we believe 5G is at its best when it leverages ultra wideband or millimeter wave frequencies. Verizon has been testing and flying drones connected with Verizon 4G LTE since 2016. It works really well because LTE is widespread, and it works well in a lot of places that people fly drones today.
We expect to get even more benefit from 5G. We know that customers fly drones to collect data, collect things like imagery and video, to assess things like vegetation encroachment and infrastructure inspection, like you heard from Corey. The biggest benefit I see to 5G, one of the biggest benefits, it allows us to stream video even faster. It really opens up some near real-time video processing capabilities that we don’t have today.
Christie Wolgamott (12:42)
Awesome. Thank you, Tera. At Skyward, we want to make sure that our customers achieve drone ROI right away with the technology that’s available today. We also want to ensure that our customers have the future in mind. Knowing how you can use drones today and how you might use them in the future puts you in a position to apply for waivers before you need them, and set up a digital system of record that can move you into the connected future.
In addition to deploying drones to inspect poles and pipelines, Southern Company is using them to improve safety as workers support the power grid millions rely on while staying safe at home during the coronavirus pandemic. But Southern Company didn’t deploy drones and advanced technology overnight. Like many enterprises, they took a phased approach to build and prepare for the future of cellular connected drones.
We talk a lot about approaching drone operations in a crawl, walk, run phase. Corey, how would you describe your view of crawl, walk, run for Southern Company, and what phase are you in now?
Do we still have Corey?
Corey Hitchcock (14:07)
Yep. I’m still here. Sorry. Crawl, walk, run at Southern Company has happened — I’d say we’re the run phase now. We started crawling in 2015, and walk was somewhere in the middle. But for the crawl phase, I’d say investigate the technology. Determine what data you want to gather and what you want to accomplish. I think that from the very beginning for us was initially focused in the transmission & distribution vertical infrastructure space.
Once we got to the next bullet point there, the self dispatch model, we really started to see the innovation take off. I think the next thing you need to do is, or what we’ve done in Southern, is build out a self-dispatch model for our pilots. We have 191 aircraft and 131 pilots across our program. The reason that is or the reason that’s been so successful is because we’ve made the drone a tool in the subject matter expert’s toolkit.
If you’re an engineer, and you need to do some engineering, and the drone might help you there, then you’ve got a drone in your toolbox. If you’re a lineman on a line crew, then that drone is — you can make an observation on a pole without having to climb it. That drone is in your toolbox. It’s important for us to train our subject matter expert pilots and allow them to do that.
I’d say for the walk phase, building policies and determining how to train. Once you’ve gotten interest, you’ve trained a few folks, or you refine that training program and build internal company policies so that you have some organization and structure behind your program. Then after that, you use those subject matter experts to help you identify the use cases with the greatest ROI. It’s important to change the perspective of people from “drone as a toy” to “a drone is a tool.” I think finding the immediate use cases with the greatest ROI helps to do that.
Then the other part is to determine the level of acceptable risk. For our walk phase, we determined that we weren’t comfortable allowing a non-aviator or a non-full-time aviator to operate a 55-pound aircraft. That scared us in the beginning.
We developed a three-tiered system. We’ve got our initial one week of pilot training that happens and after that pilot training, they are a tier-three pilot. They can operate aircraft from 0 to 10 pounds. Then after they get 20 hours of experience, with more training, they can operate aircraft from 10 to 20 pounds, a little bit more complex aircraft. Then the tier one is reserved for our full-time operators that work in the corporate aviation department. They are full-time aviators and can operate aircraft up to 55 pounds. It’s important to determine that.
I’d say our run phase, like I said before, we’ve got 191 aircraft and 131 pilots now all across the system and all disciplines across the system. We’re starting to see the drone data value. We’re starting to get people to ask for drone data as opposed to us chasing them down and trying to show them what a drone can do. Drones are starting to really complete those dull and dirty and dangerous tasks. They’re really starting to get inside coal bunkers and coal-fired power plants, inside radiological containment areas of nuclear plants, at extreme heights of stack inspections, and they’re really starting to provide this value by limiting the hazardous man hours that it takes to complete those tests.
Christie Wolgamott (18:05)
Great. Now that we’ve gotten a peek into the phased approach of your drone program, tell us what some of your secret strategies are for deploying new technology across your teams.
Corey Hitchcock (18:18)
I really think the most important thing for getting buy-in of the new technology is to get buy-in at the highest level possible. Try to get an executive sponsor. Try to get someone at a high level that supports and believes it can champion for the technology, that believes in the benefit of the technology. I think education across the company on UAS capabilities is super important.
The different disciplines across the company may not know the benefit that another person in that discipline is seeing. It’s important for us to do regular capabilities briefs. We take a drone roadshow on the road. We travel around the company and discuss the capabilities and the benefits of using drones.
I think the third part is building that aviation safety mindset. If you’ve got a corporate aviation department within your company, I fully and strongly suggest you reach out to them, because they can help you start to build that aviation safety mindset. It’s important. We want people to understand that — we want them to think with safety at the forefront, and then if an incident or something happens, we want them to report that incident without fear of retribution so that we can learn from it and our entire fleet can learn from it. It’s part of that safety risk management system.
Christie Wolgamott (18:52)
Awesome. Corey, can we expand a little more and maybe tell us how your team is structured and are there any roles or expertise that is essential for a successful in-house drone program?
Corey Hitchcock (20:07)
Our team is housed under the corporate aviation department at Southern Company. I think we have a program manager position who answers directly to the director of aviation. I think the closeness with the leadership is super important to allow us to be successful. I think the UAS program being housed in the aviation department is important, like I talked about with the safety risk management system and the aviation safety mindset, but also building those aviation procedures. When you’re flying a 55 pounds drone, it really requires a lot of aviation techniques that you may not know if the only thing you’ve ever flown is, say, a customer off the shelf quadcopter.
I also think our internal drone program that’s housed in the corporate aviation department oversees, and the standardization across our fleet of our subject matter expert pilots. Our tier three and two pilots, we handle the training for that. We handle the standardization, check rides and that kind of thing. We’re out spreading the safety message and the building aviators out of non-aviators. I think all of that is super important to have your successful in-house drone program.
Christie Wolgamott (21:34)
Perfect. We asked you in advance to share a project with us where drones delivered high value, and I think you have a couple things to talk about. Can you walk us through those projects and tell us how drones brought value to the work?
Corey Hitchcock (21:53)
Okay, sure. The first thing we’re seeing here, this is deep inside of a radiological, high radiation area inside of nuclear power plant. We’re able to fly a drone and identify a pretty significant oil leak and allow the planners that build a plan on how to repair this oil leak to investigate it and not have to put a human in there to obtain dose and be at risk in a high temperature, high radiation environment. We’re able to fly an aircraft in there, grab the data, we came out. I want to say it was around an 800 millirem dose that we prevented the worker from obtaining.
Then the video, and the pictures, and stuff, the media that we got from this flight, the engineers and planners were able to devise a plan that would limit the exposure to the lowest level of the person that had to go in there and make the repair or bypass the valve or whatever it is they did.
That provided a lot of value. It may have cost a little bit more for us to do it this way. But the reduction in hazardous man hours, the reduction in dose, those things are worth far more than the slight increase of costs of us doing this type of inspection.
I think this next one’s a pretty neat use case. We were given an estimate of around a half a million to three quarters of a million dollars to do a visual inspection of this parabolic cooling tower. The engineer in charge of that reached out to me and said, “Hey, do you think there’s a way we can do this with drones?” We basically flew every square inch of this cooling tower, and were able to build a 3D model and then use that 3D model to document defects in virtual space so that you had some context to where the defect was.
We were able to find defects down to about two inches on the actual structure itself. Then using 3D modeling software, we were able to model the parabolic cooling tower and actually print that parabolic cooling tower out in about two and a half to three foot dimensions tall. Then we were able to use that to communicate to our contractors when they were undergoing the RFP so that they could more accurately build an estimate for the work that was going to happen on the structure. We saved time and money by building this 3D model and using this drone in this situation.
Christie Wolgamott (24:46)
Great. Thanks for sharing all that with us. We’ve talked about how Southern Company uses drones today. If you had an easy button and all the technology you wanted existed tomorrow, what would your drone operation of the future look like, and how would drones be working within Southern Company?
Corey Hitchcock (25:07)
I think the future of drone technology in the utility space revolves around two types of drones. I think you’re going to have your small, autonomous drones that live in a box on the infrastructure, say, a substation, a power plant, a transmission line, or distribution line. Those drones all have different jobs, but can be autonomously operated to patrol the lines for fault location analysis, to patrol substations post-switching so that you can verify that all the switching contacts are in. Even to provide security at, say, some of our nuclear facilities to enhance that security.
I think the other arm of the drone operation in the utility space is going to involve larger aircraft to get truly beyond line-of-sight. The initial use case being transmission inspections, and then during — and that’s the blue sky there. We’d like to replace our helicopters. It’s very dangerous for helicopters to fly in a wired environment. We look for one aircraft that’s large enough to carry multiple types of sensors and fly for a long, long range.
Ultimately, during a storm, that aircraft could be used to, prior to the storms arrival, say, the hurricane is going to strike the coast of Georgia, we could launch the aircraft from Atlanta, fly down to Georgia, map the entire coast with LiDAR or high resolution photogrammetry. Once that’s mapped, we recover the aircraft. Wait for the storm to pass. As soon as the storms pass, maybe before it’s safe to fly manned aircraft, we’ve launched the unmanned aircraft into the area to, again, grab that map. Then once that data is captured, we can use change detection software. Then immediately we’d know what roads are flooded, what trees are down, what poles are broken, how much material we need, and how many pieces of equipment we need to call in from other systems. I think those two things in concert will really reduce the amount of time that power’s out following a disaster or following some type of localized storm.
Christie Wolgamott (27:21)
That sounds like an amazing future. Corey, for those listening in today that are just starting a drone program, what three pieces of advice would you share with them?
Corey Hitchcock (27:35)
I would say, reach out to your industry peers. In the utility space, we’re not really competing against each other. We’re all pretty open to discussing what we’re doing and how we’re doing it and how we found benefit in our program. There’s a wealth of knowledge in the four or five years that drones have been used inside the utility space. I think it’s really important to benchmark and do the same thing that the other drone programs are doing so we can develop a standard for how drones are operated inside the utility space.
I also think it’s super important to consult as many people that have experience about selecting aircraft, and selecting aircraft based on your use case needs. Decide what you want to do and then figure — Decide what data you would like to get and then backwards plan to the type of aircraft you need. Don’t just run out and grab the biggest, best, largest drone you can find because someone promises that it can one day land on the moon. It’s not. The capabilities of the aircraft today are the capabilities that you’ll have to use when you’re operating your drones.
Again, I think it’s super important for you to partner with your aviation department. If you have an internal aviation department, they have a lot of knowledge in the FAA realm and in the realm of general aviation. I think it’s super important to try to link up with them and become part of their organization or use them as subject matter experts for the aviation piece of operating drones on the utility space.
Christie Wolgamott (29:23)
Awesome. Thank you so much for all that, Corey. We’ve heard some great tips today for anyone in the early stages of starting a drone program. But what about preparing for the future? When we think about preparing for the future of drone operations, we want to look at what we can do tactically now to be ready for more complex flight operations like beyond visual line-of-sight. Today, we’re focusing on two main hot topics: connectivity and autonomy.
Tera, I’d love to hear from you now. Can you tell us what connectivity looks like in the air and what drone program managers should know or do to prepare for connected fleets?
Tera Schroeder (30:04)
Yeah, sure. Thanks, Christie. We’ve already mentioned, here at Skyward, we’re building the future of connected aviation. That includes aviation for low-altitude manned and unmanned aircraft. We’re making this possible by connecting aircraft to the Verizon network. We’re also partnering with the FAA and the larger industry ecosystem to pull all of the pieces together to make this a real thing. Our vision here is to really establish an ecosystem where drone operators can fly farther. It’s about designing products so customers can do more with drones.
You can imagine instead of a 15 or 20-minute flight to inspect power lines, we want drones to fly a lot longer so operators can do more with fewer flights. We know that during a disaster, customers want to fly drones and helicopters or small planes in the same area. You heard Corey speak about this a few slides ago. We want to support that mixed use airspace in a way that’s safe, and gets the emergency responders the information they need to help those who have been affected.
I mentioned earlier that we are doing a lot of R&D with cellular. We found two really big takeaways from that work. We know that when drones are flying up in the air, they see a lot more cell towers than we do on the ground when we use our own personal cellphones. You can see here in this image here on the slide, this drone is seeing three cell towers. We’ve had cases where we’ve seen a lot more than three. When you’re up in the air, you just don’t have the line-of-sight obstacles that you have on the ground.
We also know that drones are data generators. As they collect that data, they’re sending that to the network. This is a little bit different than ground users who primarily consume data from the network. The arrow of data travel is really going in the opposite direction for drones.
In the R&D that we perform with our Verizon colleagues, we’re really looking at ways to optimize how drones connect to the network and adding extra layers of security to protect that data. We’re looking at aviation grade connectivity for our drone operators. We found that it looks a lot different in some cases than how our cell phones connect to the network.
Christie, you asked, what can drone managers do to prepare for connectivity? The first thing is understanding your use case. Knowing what you’re wanting to do with a drone really determines what you need out of your connectivity. Practical needs for cellular connectivity could be the use of real-time telemetry for situational awareness. Things like real-time video for live media broadcast or engineering analysis and remote command and control for beyond visual line-of-sight operations.
Connecting a drone beyond visual line-of-sight over cellular includes more than just the wire segment that a lot of us think about. We have other pieces to that ecosystem also, things like the type of cellular that lives onboard your drone, the towers, the radio network, the cellular core network, the backhaul telecommunications network, and the connected devices and services.
What we really find here is that safely deploying drones over a network requires you to understand the basics of how this whole chain works together. How are all those pieces drawn together to help you fly your drone for the use case and the operations that you want to fly. You should work with experts like those at Verizon to plan your connected drone network to make sure the whole system is ready for beyond visual line-of-site. There are a lot of pieces of this ecosystem. It’s really about pulling all those together.
Here at Skyward, we can help you establish that communications plan that meets the critical needs of stakeholders involved in fielding those high ROI use cases. Cellular connectivity really does provide a significant improvement in capability over what we see today.
Christie Wolgamott (34:26)
Okay. Now let’s shift to autonomy. How do connected drones lead to autonomy? What should drone program managers be thinking about here?
Tera Schroeder (34:38)
Yeah. First, there’s different levels of autonomy. Just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should. We’ve probably heard that before. Your organization needs a lot of things. Corey talked about trying to plug in with your aviation department if you have one. They’ll help you set up things like standard operating procedures, a training program, emergency procedure checklists, and really making sure that protocols are in place when you’re relying on something other than the pilot to make those decisions for you.
With higher autonomy, you’re putting more reliance on other systems. In that scenario, understanding when you need human supervision is really important in thinking about how you integrate these rules and policies with your overall program. Again, for more autonomous operations, you’re relying on the drone or other elements of that system to make some of those decisions, and knowing the system response to different events is really important. This is something that the drone providers should be able to tell you.
We work with a lot of drones here Skyward. We see that some have a really basic level of autonomy, such as flying along predetermined flight paths. Others are able to execute a lot more complex maneuvers, and special return to home procedures. In all of these cases, it’s really important that your team understands the capabilities and needs of the autonomous system, and particularly how much input is needed from human operators. For example, how does the system alert operators to a situation? How do humans know when they should interact during a failure of the autonomous element to that system?
We also see that it’s really important to have a solid plan for how the system is checked for failures. Not only will the technical conditions have an impact on the level of supervision needed, but operational risk may also require closer supervision for those flights that could involve higher risk. Planning for failures, as with all of these technologies, understanding and rehearsing failure recovery in the event of a real failure really helps you know what you’re supposed to do ahead of time.
Ensure that you have a good after action or retrospective process is a big deal. Wrapping those lessons learned into your flight ops procedures just makes you that much more safe, even more safer for the next time.
Christie Wolgamott (37:26)
Great. Tera, I’m also really excited to hear you tell us more about the Aviation Development Centers. What is an Aviation Development Center, and how will they advance the drone industry?
Tera Schroeder (37:40)
Yeah. Thanks, Christie. In my role as the Connected Aircraft Product Manager, I work with this team all the time. Our Aviation Development Centers are field testing facilities. It really gives us a platform to conduct R&D for some of these advanced use cases that we’ve spoken about, including connecting drones directly to 4G LTE and to 5G. You could imagine, you can’t really test connected drones in a lab in the same way that you can test cell phones or other connected devices. We really need to be able to fly them. The good news is we like flying them. It’s fun for us.
Developing cellular connected aircraft that go beyond visual line-of-sight requires specialized testing capabilities, networks, special facilities and locations where we can test new technologies like 5G and private wireless networks, and multi-access edge computing. Both Skyward and Verizon have robust testing and development programs. We really can successfully integrate all of these pieces together to pull together these management platform services with the UAS products.
The Aviation Development Centers also have a mission to aid our first responders in times of crisis like if a natural disaster occurs. Something that’s really exciting to me is that we get to build the future of connected aviation for low altitude manned and unmanned aircraft. We’re able to make this possible because we connect aircraft to the Verizon network. We really are partnering with the FAA and industry ecosystems to make it all a reality.
We know, as I said before, drones connect differently to the network than our cell phones do. Drones can see more towers. The data, in general, moves in a different direction. Drones to the network as opposed to when our cellular phones connect to the network. They’re largely data consumers. Optimizing the network with Verizon, and using Aviation Development Center resources really, really, really helps us learn what pieces are important and how do we build that aviation grade connectivity? Really we want to make sure that customers establish a communications plan that meets the needs of the stakeholders involved and fielding high ROI use cases where cellular connectivity provides significant improvement.
Like I said before, the Aviation Development Centers are really where the technology stack meets the field testing. Our Skyward engineers take advanced drone technology, these cutting edge cellular technologies like 5G and MEC. We get to test that in real life scenarios with real life challenges. It really allows us to push the capability of drones to the next level.
If you look at the top of your screen, you can see our mobile centers called the OTTR. We call it the OTTR. It’s the Operations Trailer and Telecommunications Resource. It’s our next generation mobile command center. It allows us to deploy network managed drones, while also providing the technology and meeting space needed for situational awareness. Our teams can make decisions right there on the site.
There in the middle of your screen, you can see our Drone Operations Vehicle. We call it the DOV. It’s a mobile cell tower with 4G and 5G technology on board. It allows us to operate as a mobile command center as well.
Then finally, we partner with customers in the industry in strategic R&D initiatives that help advance the entire suite of technologies and interoperability that help enable beyond visual line-of-sight flights, and Remote ID and as well as integrations with UTM and manned and unmanned aircraft.
Christie Wolgamott (42:04)
Great. Thank you so much, Tera. While the tech of any drone program is extremely important, it’s also vital that drone programs stay up to date on rules and regulations. Skyward is here to help keep you informed and share your voice. Tera, what requirements are needed to make cellular network BVLOS flight widely available?
Tera Schroeder (42:29)
Yeah. It’s an important question. It’s where I spend a lot of my time. In order to make beyond visual line-of-sight a reality, we look at things in three major categories. We pull these together. We’re looking at standards and regulations, devices and services, and network performance testing. We see these as all three of these things really need to come together to validate the concept of operations and really make BVLOS a reality.
On the regulatory side, we’re working with parameters set by the global cellular standards body 3GPP for airborne cellular. We work with the FAA a lot. We also work with other groups such as ASTM F38 committee on UTM and GSMA, GUTMA, Airborne Connectivity Joint Activity.
These are a lot of acronyms. But they’re really important to us. We spend our time here because it really does advance aviation in this area. We offer airborne LTE plans for compliant devices, and web and mobile tools for flights and program management. We have been and we continue to do a lot of airborne network testing on both 5G and 4G to make sure we understand how airborne devices perform on the network and how that can influence our work with the standards bodies.
It also helps us know what additional aircraft capabilities are needed to be enhanced and improved before beyond visual line-of-sight becomes widely allowed and acceptable. We’re working with drone OEMs and the overall ecosystem who are developing these components to make it a reality.
Christie Wolgamott (44:21)
Great. Thanks, Tera. One of the hot topics in the drone industry right now is remote identification. In the final days of 2019, FAA published a proposed rule for a Remote ID system that applies to both recreational and commercial drone users. Skyward has long advocated for a system of remote ID. At Skyward, we believe it will help users safely expand their programs by providing a reliable means for identifying who is flying where and when.
This is a foundational element for Universal Traffic Management, which will help aircraft of all kinds safely share the sky. That’s why we’re excited that the FAA has selected Skyward as one of just eight companies who make up the initial cohort of companies that will assist the FAA in establishing requirements for future suppliers of remote identification services.
But as a reminder, this doesn’t mean these companies will be the only providers, and some may not provide Remote ID services. This group is advising the FAA on technical standards and the soonest the rule would take effect is 2023. As we did with LAANC, Skyward looks forward to working with the industry to open up the skies for today’s business application and tomorrow’s network fleet deployments.
Now, let’s talk about how Skyward helps companies build and scale drone operations. I’d like to go ahead and move to the next slide. Whether you’re in the office or in the field, Skyward’s Aviation Management Platform is a single digital system for managing nearly every aspect of your drone program. The platform features easy to understand airspace intelligence, flight planning and risk assessment tools, as well as fast access to controlled airspace and live tracking of active flights.
Pilots can also bring the power of Skyward into the field with InFlight, Skyward’s mobile app. InFlight features the same airspace intelligence and flight planning features, plus a complete mobile ground control system. InFlight automatically logs flights to the Skyward platform.
In addition to our Aviation Management Platform, Skyward’s Professional Services team is available to help you find success no matter what stage your program is in. We offer a variety of consultation, hardware acquisition, and training services. For drone programs just starting out, Skyward offers a one-stop shop for all services you need to get off the ground including a general operating manual, online prep course for Part 107 certification, drone kits, and in-person classroom and field flight training.
As you heard from Tera earlier, Skyward’s Aviation Development Centers are where our customers and partners can come and test, connect the drones and advanced use cases with the aviation and connectivity experts at Skyward and Verizon.
Finally, every drone program needs aviation standard operating procedures. Without them, pilots risk operating inconsistently, unsafely, and potentially breaking the law. Take Flight fills that gap and provides a comprehensive set of aviation policies and procedures for companies looking to establish a safe and compliant foundation for their drone programs. Take Flight includes operational, technical and reference materials. It also includes a chance to work with Skyward’s drone experts to tailor procedures to your company’s policies, and help you successfully implement them into your operation.
Finally, if you’re eager to learn some more about how regulations, technology, and innovation are shaping the drone industry, be sure to register for the Executive Roundtable webinar that we have taking place on June 22nd. Skyward will also have a presence at the Virtual FAA UAS Symposium in July and August. We hope to connect with those of you attending that as well.
Now, we’ll move into our Q&A time. We’ve got about 12 minutes left, I believe. Tera, this first question is for you. How can drones inspect transmission and distribution towers that are not within range of cell towers for data?
Tera Schroeder (49:00)
Yeah. That’s a really good question. It’s one that we get a lot. A lot of cellular connected drones also have localized RF links on the unlicensed spectrum. You might see it referred to on your GCS tablet or controller as the Wi-Fi link. In cases where no cellular coverage is in the area of interest, the pilot can use that link and therefore needs to be closer to the aircraft than is possible with cellular. There is, on a lot of drones, redundant communication paths, cellular and the localized RF link.
This means that towers outside of the cellular range will be inspected just like they are today. You might not be able to stream data in that case. You might have to download it off the drone when you get back to the office. But drones still bring a lot of huge benefits: safety, efficiency, cost savings. You heard some of those from Corey. We’re happy to follow up with that after the webinar if you have more questions. It’s a really common question in the industry. Thanks.
Christie Wolgamott (50:09)
Great. Corey, this next one’s for you. Where do you utilities see the most cost savings when using drones?
Corey Hitchcock (50:18)
When you talk cost savings in the utilities about using drones, some things may cost a little bit more, but they may reduce hazardous man hours that before couldn’t be reduced due to the previous method. Then some things we’re able to do a lot cheaper without having to hire helicopters, without having to hire manned aircraft. I would say the cost savings for us is tracked in hazardous manned hours reduced and benefit to the company.
There is, I’d say, probably our largest cost savings today is in our mapping worlds. We’re mapping small surgical targets using LiDAR and using photogrammetry. We’re able to do those targets that would be cost prohibitive otherwise for a manned helicopter and manned aircraft to do.
For instance, one of the mapping projects we do is about 3,400 acres. We do that on a regular basis with a fixed-wing drone. In the past, they attempted to do that with a photogrammetry manned aircraft. We’re able to save a bunch of money there.
Christie Wolgamott (51:40)
Awesome. Thanks, Corey. Tera, is drone endurance a factor that is currently limiting the adoption of drone technology?
Tera Schroeder (51:50)
Yeah. We hear from a lot of customers that drone endurance is a factor. Kind of makes sense. It’s hard to inspect a lot of infrastructure when your drone only has, say, 15 or 20 minutes of flight time. We know that it is a concern.
We also see a larger issue with the path to beyond visual line-of-sight and in the limitations in that path. Our customers really do want to fly farther so they can do even more. That’s why we’re working with the FAA and the industry to safely achieve beyond visual line-of-sight operations. We’re looking at drones that will allow one hour flight times so you can do even more with a single flight. So, yeah, drone endurance is a factor, for sure.
Christie Wolgamott (52:43)
Great. Corey, this one’s for you. Have operational efficiencies been impacted by the pandemic?
Corey Hitchcock (52:53)
Of course, I’d say yes. Our operations, some things are a little bit harder to do than they were prior to the pandemic. But Southern Company has been at work keeping the lights on the entire time. We’ve kept all our employees and kept everybody working. Something that, an exercise that we were able to do during the pandemic was the large drone and helicopter flight test that we did, that was pretty neat. But yeah, we’ve been supporting any critical infrastructure needs that we’ve had throughout the system this entire time. We’ve been inside nuclear generation and transmission and distribution.
Christie Wolgamott (53:37)
Awesome. That’s good to hear. How do OSHA standards apply to UAS inspection crews on electrical infrastructure?
Corey Hitchcock (53:49)
I would say that all of your standard OSHA requirements exist: hardhat, safety toed shoes, vest, safety glasses, that kind of thing. They all exist. I would say that the drone limits the exposure to a lot of … it limits exposure to high voltage environments, environments at height, and that kind of thing. But overall, we still follow all of our safety rules that we had in place when we were working in the field as linemen, and we just carry on with that. Yeah. OSHA rules definitely apply when you’re operating drones.
Christie Wolgamott (54:30)
Great. I have another one for you, Corey. Are you using drones to help reconcile or improve the accuracy of your GIS?
Corey Hitchcock (54:41)
We are. Yeah. We’ve just started doing that. With our mapping software, our new mapping software that we’ve gotten, we have started doing, basically taking our underground one line diagram that we use to switch in underground situations. We’re trying to capture the underground conductors with the ditch open. While the ditch is open, you can see the conductor from the air. We map it. Then when the GIS people draw that map that will later be used to switch that project, they can see in near … as closely and as accurately as possible based off of them building the map off of the photogrammetry map.
Yes. We are reconciling also the types and position of equipment in the field. We’re also starting to redraw some of our one line maps for substations to more accurately reflect the position of components inside the substation. In the past, one line drawings were just written the way it made the most electrical sense and not the way that it made that it was in real life. Now that we’re able to fly photogrammetry missions over our larger substations or any substation, we can build a map that more accurately reflects where the equipment is inside the substation, as well as the electrical connections inside the substation.
Christie Wolgamott (56:15)
Great. This next question is for Tera. What is unique about the technology capabilities of the Skyward drones compared to others?
Tera Schroeder (56:27)
Yeah. Thanks for that question. I like talking about this as the Connected Aircraft Product Manager. One nice thing is Skyward software and services are platform agnostic. We’re able to help you manage your drone fleet regardless of who made the drone, and who made the other elements in that ecosystem. Our InFlight GCS is compatible with a number of select DJI drone models. We’re also working with drone OEMs on connectivity and compatibility with the Skyward platform to bring more drones into our Skyward ecosystem.
I think the last point I want to make here, Skyward is a Verizon company. We’re backed by a really strong network and we get to work with some of the best connectivity experts in the nation to really bring about that aviation grade connectivity and making sure that the entire system is optimized for that cellular communication.
Christie Wolgamott (57:29)
Great, Tera. Corey, I’ve got a question for you. How close to energized transmission lines can you fly without interference problems?
Corey Hitchcock (57:40)
It depends on the type of aircraft that we’re flying. Generally speaking with aircraft that have an electronic compass, and it also depends on the voltage that you’re operating around. For 500 kV, we generally try to keep the aircraft … or we don’t start noticing compass errors or problems until we’re around five to eight feet from the energized conductor. When we’re working on as the voltage decreases, that distance to the conductor can increase a little bit. I’d say the closest we’ve probably gotten to 230 and 115 is around a couple feet before we start seeing compass errors.
Lately, we’ve been working with a drone that doesn’t have a compass on it. We’ve been able to get almost near contact, definitely, maybe a half a meter, or less with 500 kV and I’ve gotten some amazing data off of that aircraft. We’re pretty excited about that. But as a general rule of thumb around 5 feet at 500 kV.
Christie Wolgamott (58:50)
Thanks, Corey. It looks like we’re out of time for questions today. If we weren’t able to get to your question, we’ll have a follow-up email with the recording of this webinar. We’ll try and answer some of those top questions as well.
Thank you everyone for joining us today. I hope you’re all staying safe and healthy. I hope your drone program continues onward, upward, and Skyward. Have a great day.