ROI with UAVs in Utilities: Creating and Scaling a Drone Program

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Sorting through regulation challenges has been a top priority for operators and organizations when it comes to utilizing drones. While Part 107 completely changed that consideration, many utility companies deal with additional concerns from the general public that relate to privacy issues as well as internal questions around how a drone program can scale across the entire organization. Utility professionals aren’t the only ones who have to deal with concerns around how their use of drones will impact the public’s privacy or what it means to scale a program in order to create a strong ROI, but those elements can make it uniquely difficult for them to implement a drone program.

That’s why the efforts of organizations like San Diego Gas & Electric are so important to highlight. The public awareness campaigns they’ve put together around their use of drones have done much to ease privacy concerns, and their willingness to work through regulatory challenges has allowed them to showcase what kind of an impact the technology can have on safety and efficiency. All of these efforts are directly related to how they’re looking to scale and eventually automate their drone program.

 

sdgande_4The Logistics of Establishing a Drone Program

Andrew Krawczel is Aviation Services Manager at San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E). After being exposed to drone technology when he served in the Marines, he got a sense for the capabilities of the different sensor packages and the overall situational awareness these tools can provide. That was part of the reason he joined SDG&E as they were working to transition their drone program from research & development to full operation. Where the commitment to do so came from and how the technology was implemented is of critical importance though.

“Buy-in at the senior level is what really kept it on track,” Krawczel said. “We are fortunate to have a VP that’s dedicated to the effort, understands the value proposition of the technology and has been an invaluable resource in terms of guiding the program to success. We’ve also had a small but very dedicated staff, and that’s been a critical aspect of continuing to innovate and develop use cases.”

Those use cases were important to develop and have on hand while regulation was still sorting itself out, since the program got going under a Section 333 Exemption. The organization knew Part 107 was going to eventually be a reality, but the specifics of that eventual development made little difference in terms of their efforts to figure out what applications there were for the technology in the energy industry. That approach has allowed them to expand many of these use cases and figure out how they can work under current regulation, rather than the other way around.

What has also made their program distinct is that they’ve worked to implement a safety management system that’s modeled after manned aviation, even though it’s on a much smaller scale for drones. They’ve also worked to implement contractor and internal controls, which includes a training program they’re setting up in-house. These efforts are designed to ensure the program has their priorities in the right place, all of which stem from a larger but proven safety structure.

“You look at our program and it’s really based off of doing it as safe as possible,” Krawczel explained. “That’s why we’ve used the FAA’s Safety Management System framework and adjusted it to where it accommodates UAS, but that’s really something we have to do as a utility company, which is in the public’s eye. We have to make sure we’re doing it right and that we have controls in place. It’s still aviation.”

That sort of recognition is what helped make the program a reality under a Section 333 Exemption but also allowed it to expand under Part 107. The logistics of that process are an essential element to the program’s success in the present and future.

 

Regulation, Rollout and Raising Public Awareness

Part 107 has given SDG&E the ability to scale their drone program in ways they always envisioned. Under their Section 333 Exemption, their aviation services unit needed to support every business unit with all of the elements that go into a flight program. Under Part 107, the rollout of the program looks totally different.

“With our 333, Aviation Services had to support every business unit with a pilot, drone, oversight, maintenance and everything else that goes into a flight program,” Krawczel said. “With 107, we can take an employee from one of those business units, get them FAA qualified, get them trained to fly in support of the company, and then from there we’re just providing the oversight. Providing oversight is a lot easier than providing pilots and drones.”

Becoming the keepers of the UAS program from a safety and management standpoint is the end goal for Krawczel and his team. Ultimately, the drone program is designed to create meaningful value for SDG&E, and it does that by making things safer and/or more efficient. These elements can be realized in a job that takes a couple minutes to fly with a drone versus a few hours to complete using traditional work methods, and by keeping someone on the ground versus having them climb a tall structure to collect data.

Utility companies and employees who no longer have to put themselves in dangerous situations aren’t the only ones benefitting from this value though. The public as a whole might be able to see their monthly bills reduced as a result of what a drone program is able to do, but those details along with assurances around what exactly the drone is being used for needs to be communicated.

“We’ve had to be prudent in terms of how we discuss the program with the public and then also how we engage the public when we’re out flying,” Krawczel said. “For just about 100% of our flights we end up interacting with the public in some capacity, whether that’s a positive one or one where people might be asking some pointed questions that deal with privacy concerns. By explaining what we’re doing with the drone, members of the public are much more likely to quickly unwind and relax and understand that what we’re doing is in the spirit of doing things safer and more efficient as a utility.”

That efficiency is a direct result of a drone program that started under Section 333 and is now able to scale under Part 107. It’s allowed the company to explore what the technology will mean in the present and future.

 

sdgande_2Scale in the Present, Automation in the Future

Being able to train company employees and get a drone in the hands of the end users within a business unit will change the approach for employees across the company. Being able to do so is all on account of the value the company has been able to find in their efforts, which is a result of working though what doesn’t provide them with that value.

“The goal of a UAS program shouldn’t be to fly drones for the sake of flying drones,” Krawczel explained. “The goal should be leveraging the technology to create a value proposition by replacing an existing work method with either a safer or more efficient UAS flight. In addition, it needs to be managed such that the end-user isn’t buried in data. We encountered some of that when we’d go out and do structure assessments. We’d end up with 75 pictures of one structure, and that got us to try and figure out what pictures we actually needed. How many do we really need to take to accomplish the mission? We answered that question so that we took as many pictures as we needed without taking any more than were necessary.”

That might seem like a simple issue to sort through, but literally asking and answering those questions is the only way a program can work at the scale envisioned by SDG&E. What’s more, having those answers allows them to think about where things are headed with regulation in terms of beyond visual line of sight operation (BVLOS) as well as drones that can autonomously gather and process critical information. The company has already begun to explore autonomous flights and BVLOS operation through a couple pilot programs. Being able to autonomously handle things like change detection are already being discussed.

“From what we’ve seen, the post processing capabilities are becoming more and more automated,” Krawczel continued. “That will just further the industry and further the use cases and efficacy of using drones. We’re looking to baseline the system and have a drone go out and take the same set of pictures at each structure, time and time again. Then we can look at the trends to help determine which things are changing. Honestly, I think that’s going to be the real benefit when we talk about efficiencies in the utility industry.”

Focusing on short-term goals has allowed the company to do things safer and more efficient now, but that effort has an even greater benefit. It allows them to refine these procedures in order to see how they might eventually work as drones develop more autonomous capabilities and things like BVLOS operation are opened up with regulation.

 

sdgande_3Getting off the Ground

Unlike many organizations that wanted to wait until regulation was further defined, SDG&E secured their Section 333 even as they knew and understood how Part 107 would change things for the industry and even for them. It wasn’t all for nothing though, and the company had a lot of lessons learned and also generated a number of use cases.

Of course, there are numerous companies that didn’t have the kind of success SDG&E saw under a Section 333 Exemption, and plenty others aren’t quite sure what makes sense for them under Part 107. For utility companies that are all going to be starting from different places, what’s the best way to approach adoption?

“For utilities you need to make sure you have the right controls in place,” Krawczel said. “Have the right oversight. Leverage the expertise of some local service providers. First develop a value thesis and then verify it with pilot programs utilizing service providers. After you’ve done that, you can make a decision about what should come in-house and how to scale the program.”

Being able to put together public awareness campaigns around what is being done and even being considered can help ensure there isn’t any public backlash around the efforts to put together a drone program. That ties into the safety mitigations that need to be in place to ensure everything is being handled properly.

The costs associated with starting a drone program can sometimes scare a finance department, but those costs don’t have to be significant, either in terms of a single purchase or at scale. The hybrid program being put together at SDG&E is set to utilize drones that are on the low end, which will enable these tools to get into the hands of that many more of their employees. The missions that require more sophisticated equipment such as LIDAR and multi-spectral is where they’re set to leverage the expertise of contractors. How implementation can work for utility companies at different sizes doing business in different regions is going to vary, but there are some commonalities that should be considered in each.

“You’ve got to have a cross-functional team that involves IT for the data management and analytics platform,” Krawczel concluded. “On the other side of it though, the end users have to be at the table to ensure that one of their expenses is going to be less in the near future by utilizing drones. The people that will ultimately be using and benefitting from the technology need to buy into it from the beginning.”

Even as major regulatory challenges and public backlash problems are being solved, utility companies need to be selective in how they approach the creation of a drone program. SDG&E has proven what it can mean to create and utilize this type of program, and as the technology continues to evolve, utility companies will find and discover new opportunities around how it can create value for them.

 

About the Author

Jeremiah Karpowicz is the Executive Editor for Commercial UAV News. He has created articles, videos, newsletters, ebooks and plenty more for various communities as a contributor and editor. He is also the author of a number of industry specific reports that feature exclusive insights and information around how drones are being used in various markets. You can read all of those reports here. Get in touch with him on Twitter: @jeremiahkarp

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