Drones are becoming key tools for infrastructure inspections. I recently had the chance to moderate a webinar hosted by AUVSI titled Drones and the Future of Infrastructure Inspection. Joining me was a panel of experts from the utilities, transportation, telecommunications, and drone industries. We discussed best practices from Skyward’s new ebook on drone infrastructure inspections, and the panelists shared tips and examples from their industries.

We covered a lot of ground in the webinar, but I’d like to share a few major topics we discussed.

1. America’s infrastructure needs major investment

We opened the webinar by discussing the United States’ infrastructure. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave America’s infrastructure a D+ grade, recommending $3.8 trillion in investments for improvements. And population growth, climate change, and other challenges will continue to stress the nation’s infrastructure.

It’s a costly problem. But it’s also a huge opportunity. Enterprises that build and maintain critical infrastructure are innovating to lower costs and reduce risk. And new technologies like drones are helping.

2. Drones bring benefits to infrastructure businesses

Many companies dealing with infrastructure already use drones—and they’re reporting returns on their investment. Here are a few key benefits:

Safety

Infrastructure often lies in high-risk environments: bridges and dams are built on rivers. Transmission lines span rugged wilderness. Telecommunications towers may be hundreds of feet tall. Traditional inspections require personnel to assess structures by climbing, rappelling, or flying manned aircraft near them. These high-risk procedures are part of the reason infrastructure is so difficult to maintain.

Using drones for infrastructure inspections can reduce the need for putting for workers at height or near hazards. They can mitigate risk and may even help to save lives on the jobsite.

Time Savings

Drone inspections often take less time than traditional inspections. A drone can cover ground much more quickly than a worker on foot, especially over difficult terrain. It can fly to a tower’s full height in seconds. And with good data practices, results can be turned around in hours rather than days.

Data Collection

Drones can be equipped with a variety of sensors to collect several types of information. Companies are leveraging drone data to provide insight into infrastructure’s current and past condition—and forecasting into the future.

3. Examples of drones in infrastructure industries

Each of our panelists shared insights from her or his industry. For the sake of length, I’ll share just one example from each panelist here. To get the whole range of insights, check out the webinar recording and transcript.

Utilities

Our featured panelist was Kyle Gustofson, Senior Transmission Line Engineer and UAS Program Manager at Great River Energy. Great River Energy is Minnesota’s largest generation and transmission cooperative. With more than 4,800 miles of transmission lines and 3,000 megawatts of generation, it’s a major utility enterprise.

Great River Energy formally started their drone program in 2018. Seven employees are certified Part 107 drone pilots, and they operate a fleet of 12 drones. Great River Energy’s drones are capturing better data than traditional inspection methods and seeing gains in safety and efficiency.

Currently, Great River Energy is working to train subject matter experts (SMEs) as drone pilots. A trained SME with a drone can quickly identify problems in the field that unspecialized pilots may miss. This saves time and keeps employees’ feet on the ground.

Transportation

Rachel Mulholland, now a Professional Services Project Manager at Skyward, developed a drone program at one of the world’s largest rail transportation companies. During a train derailment, drone-enhanced inspections provided deeper insights into the cause.

Trains can be a mile in length, which means derailment sites can be even longer. Assessing the site by foot can be hazardous and, since damage may be above eye-level, often requires extra equipment. Drones, on the other hand, quickly flew the length of the derailment site. They provided a bird’s-eye view and kept personnel out of harm’s way. The company used drone data to create a 3D model of the site, identify the faulty coupler that caused the derailment, and even pinpoint the exact moment in time the derailment occurred.

Telecommunications

Rodney Murray is the President of Eagle Drones and one of Skyward’s Professional Services consultants. He works with telecommunications infrastructure and is an active member of the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE).

Telecom maintenance workers are required to climb towers that are hundreds of feet tall, where workers are at risk of falls and exposure to dangerous conditions. Drones can reduce the need for climbers by performing inspections. They can quickly inspect a structure from top to bottom for insects, birds, rust, or any kind of deterioration in minutes rather than hours.

4. Key insights for managing drones

As we discussed strong drone operation practices, a few pro tips came up repeatedly.

Partner with departments across your organization

All three panelists commented on this: buy-in from teams across your organization is essential for long-term success. Rachel suggested partnering with human resources for smooth personnel management. Kyle recommended working with legal teams to set strong program standards. And Rodney advised working with safety personnel to mitigate risks.

The panelists urged cross-team collaboration as early on as possible. Early collaboration leads to unified standards; later collaboration may mean reevaluating practices you’ve already established.

Purchasing a drone does not mean you have a drone program

Early on, Great River Energy’s drone program lacked consistent standards and data collection practices. As a result, drones provided little value to their business operations. That’s why Kyle and Great River Energy began working with Skyward to establish a strong set of standard operating procedures.

Now, instead of scattered drone flights, they have a well-run program that’s obtaining a good return on investment. They’re even creating an internal training program to maintain high-quality outcomes as their program expands.

Be strategic about data practices

Data must be effectively collected, stored, and analyzed—otherwise, it goes to waste. In fact, Rachel said that mismanagement of data may be the biggest threat to using drones for infrastructure inspections. On the other hand, well-managed data is a valuable business asset. Data practices are a make-or-break factor for drone programs that is often overlooked or undervalued.

How Skyward helps

Many of the topics we discussed came right out of Skyward’s latest ebook, Best Practices for Drone Infrastructure Inspections. The ebook provides tips, best practices, and considerations for companies thinking about deploying drones for infrastructure inspections. Check it out for a deeper dive into this topic.On the webinar, we discussed many more best practices and industry examples. We also considered the future of drone operations around infrastructure, including 5G connected flights and beyond visual line of sight operations. Be sure to watch the webinar recording or read the transcript.

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