PrecisionHawk VP Talks UAVs for Infrastructure Monitoring

Everyone knows that UAVs are great for precision agriculture, but there are other rural industries that benefit from using the technology as well. Thomas Haun, VP of Global Strategy for PrecisionHawk, explains why.

Though PrecisionHawk does a lot of work with agriculture clients, the company has found that UAVs work especially well for infrastructure monitoring. That’s true, he says, for oil and gas firms, utilities firms, or anyone “making sure that they are doing that environmental monitoring for compliance reporting.”

But, as with precision agriculture, there’s another level at which UAVs can be useful. “So I’ll give you an example around pipeline monitoring. Obviously oil and gas companies have long corridors of which they are responsible for understanding environmental conditions in the moment,” Haun explains. “There’s that need, but there’s also a need for broader understanding of what is happening temporally.”

Since UAVs can be flown more regularly than manned flights, it gives companies data at regular intervals. A company like PrecisionHawk can bring analytics to that data and help the asset owner understand how the asset is changing over time.

In the past, rural industries were gathering much of their data from satellites. It might seem that UAVs will completely replace satellites for data gathering, but Haun sees their relationship being more symbiotic.

“Satellites can give you very broad coverages at a reasonable resolution,” he says, “but a UAV can really provide that pinpoint level accuracy to ensure that if [an asset owner] detects some change with the satellite, they can then understand exactly what that change was. Was it a new tree growing near a pipeline? Is it that the pipeline was sagging, or had moved slightly due to some tectonic shift? The satellite wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly what happened, but might be able to tip you off that you need to look at this area. That’s where a UAV would come in and fit perfectly.”

On top of ease, precision, and data over time, Haun notes that UAVs shine by bringing safety for rural inspection work. “Frankly, flying a manned aircraft or a helicopter into some of these environments can be dangerous at best. And by being able to keep your personnel on the ground and put a little robot in the sky, has really improved safety.”

But there’s still a barrier to using UAVs: regulation. Haun notes that the FAA proposed rules require the operator to keep the UAV within their sight at all times. He also explained that PrecisionHawk has been working with the FAA on the Pathfinder program, which aims to find ways for operators to safely use UAVs beyond line of sight. This is important for oil & gas providers, for instance, because “they would not want a UAV to fly outside of the operator’s line of sight unless they can guarantee the safety of the operator, the UAV and the infrastructure that that UAV is monitoring.”

In the end, Haun explains, commercial enterprises will push for UAVs because they are great at “identifying change and detecting any anomalies that exist.”

If we can use these machines, “our infrastructure will be safer and we can keep the personnel that maintain that infrastructure safer going forward because of the pinpoint accuracy that a UAV can provide. It will not only allow the oil and gas company to monitor that infrastructure, but to ensure that they’re putting those maintenance crews in the safest environments for the work they need to perform on that infrastructure.”

About the Author

Sean has previously worked as a technical writer, a researcher, a freelance technology writer, and an editor for various arts publications. He has degrees from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts and the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, where he studied the history of sound-recording technologies. Sean is a native of Maine and lives in Portland.

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