Tips for Using Drones for Energy and Utilities

Freelance Contributor for Skyward

Editor’s Note: We are so pleased to publish this article by freelance journalist (and former Skyward intern!) Isaac Bruns. Skyward is not affiliated in any way with Wolf UAS, but we agree with the advice and best practices given here.

Energy and utilities companies that have implemented drone programs are already seeing great results and reaping the benefits. For example, an engineering firm used drones for transmission line construction planning, and a leading solar utility used drones to evaluate potential sites for new solar farms. If you need more proof, here are 25 more ways drones are improving efficiency and minimizing risk for energy and utilities companies.

But if your company is just beginning to experiment with drones, you may be wondering what makes or breaks a drone initiative. How can you move from experimentation to successful integration into daily operations?

I recently spoke with Mitch Droz, Co-Owner and VP of Operations and Customer Experience at Wolf UAS. Mitch spent nine years in the utilities industry, and he has firsthand experience establishing a drone program at a major public utility. Now he works with the team at Wolf UAS to help companies and enterprises establish drone programs of their own.

“I’ve been really excited to be able to work with drones and get people up and running with them,” says Mitch. “Pairing my experience in the utilities industry with safety and development expertise, plus having actually run a program myself, I’m really excited to see what we can do in the marketplace.”

Mitch shared a few tips for utilities and energy companies early in the process of establishing successful UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) programs:

1) Find—and keep—key stakeholders

When starting up any new initiative in an enterprise, gaining initial buy-in from executives and crucial influencers is a challenge. But perhaps even more difficult than obtaining their approval is maintaining the interest of those stakeholders over time.

Mitch finds this to be true when companies first experiment with drones.

“There’s often a lot of interest up front, and people are really excited about it,” he says. “But once you get off the ground, you’re on a clock. People will fade out if you don’t get something put together quickly. So one of the challenges you face is the time it takes to get the program set up, because trying to maintain that stakeholder involvement is tough.”

One key to keeping those stakeholders is getting people involved from several departments across your organization. As more employees around the company find a wider variety of uses for drones, a greater number of managers and executives begin to see how they can be used to replicate current processes more safely or efficiently. No longer are drones one division’s special project—they prove their value to the whole company.

2) Establish a strong initial use case

With any new initiative, ROI quickly becomes an important discussion. Yet when Mitch attended the 2018 Energy Drone Coalition Summit, the discussion of the value of drones among industry-leading energy companies was more focused on speed and safety than on financial savings.

“A lot of utilities are recognizing that ROI isn’t the main driver,” he says. “In the long run, yes, you need to see that financial return, but the immediate benefits drones bring are safety and quick response times.”

Because drones can keep people out of harm’s way, they are proving valuable to workers in potentially dangerous environments. Such safety improvements could be a strong case for establishing a drone program.

“The key is time out of danger zones,” Mitch says. “You’re looking at scenarios with a rope team, or a team in a bucket truck in an energized zone—utilities companies are looking to reduce those times. And oil and gas companies are even using drones for tank inspections.”

Another source of value is the speed with which a drone team can respond to an incident. A team of just three people can quickly deploy to a scene and be in the air within minutes. They can safely and remotely survey the environment without the need for a bucket truck or specialized equipment.

3) Look for the big business case

Ultimately, however, establishing an effective business case is vital for a successful long-term drone program. Once drones have proven their potential, it’s time to look for the breakthrough application in the field. Mitch notes that, especially in a large enterprise, these use cases have to be sustainable and repeatable.

“You have to think about the numbers,” Mitch explains. “You may have a use case that saves a thousand dollars in equipment and labor, but it only happens ten times a year. $10,000 doesn’t take a program and launch it. You’ve got to look for the million-dollar savings.”

How to achieve those savings, of course, depends on the industry. But Mitch sees one major opportunity for energy and utilities that is often overlooked: the expansion of data capture across several aerial platforms. Drones are great at capturing various types of data, such as FLIR (infrared imaging), radiation detection, and many others.

“One of the big things that a drone program does is introduce aerial data and its power into the organization,” Mitch says. “Even while the program is small and it hasn’t scaled up yet, the impact it can have for a utility’s interest in aerial data is impressive.”

In a utility, drones can integrate directly into existing aviation operations and introduce new ways to capture data from any aircraft. Drones enable an aviation department to replace some costly manned aircraft flights, while at the same time expanding the types of data captured across the whole operation. And since aviation is already based on strict operating procedures and a rigorous level of safety, drones are a natural fit.

“It’s like a gateway drug,” Mitch says. “An aerial program can be launched that encompasses all sorts of aerial data, not just drone-collected. Once you get to that point, your mentality changes from just drone data collection to ‘What’s the cheapest way to get this aerial data?’ Now you’re talking about fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, and drones—it becomes this whole ecosystem in the company.”

If your company successfully integrates drones into the workflow, it’s time to look toward the future.

4) Expand operations in-house and through outsourcing

Once your program has achieved buy-in from executives and you’ve established some solid use cases, you may be ready to scale up your program. Naturally, this can be done within your company as you train more pilots and purchase more vehicles, but hiring contract drone pilots can also be an effective strategy for growth.

“It’s good to be able to do in-house operations, and then also have contractors,” says Mitch. “When you build a program within your company, you have the expertise and methods that you can now expect a contractor to perform—versus having someone show up and say ‘Hey, I brought a drone, can I go use it today?’”

Having a drone program in house elevates the safety and training standards required for every pilot, whether or not they are a company employee. And a hybrid model of internal and external operations may provide the flexibility and experience your company needs.

“With an in-house program, you’re able to do some R&D with drones and understand how you’re able to use them,” Mitch says. “Then you have the ability to reach out to contractors that want to use drones and say, ‘We expect to see cost savings and safe practices as you use those.’”

Mitch believes that drone operations will continue to expand as companies begin to adopt them widely and integrate them into their regular workflows.

“In the future, I think we’ll see the scaling of programs, and we’ll see organizations start adopting drones like a tool. So beginning from just a small fleet, you’ll see field workers, engineers, and a lot of people that use technical tools to do their daily jobs using drones regularly. I think drones are going to be one of the hammers in their box.”