It’s always exciting to hear and talk about the possibilities that exist around the practical application of drone technology, especially in utilities. Being able to gather info from the air with a UAV directly impacts how effectively and efficiently a tower can be inspected and essential data can be gathered, while also making that entire process safer.
Claims around just how much of an increase in efficiency, effectiveness and safety users can expect to see have been made for years though, and those assertions are not always backed up with any real proof. While it’s easy enough to comprehend that drones can fundamentally provide a more powerful perspective in terms of gathering data, what does it take to actually see those benefits? Drones are gathering an incredible amount of information, but does that mean users will then have that many more issues to sort out? While the impact to safety is obvious, does that benefit outweigh the cost of sorting through regulatory challenges?
These are just some of the issues professionals are struggling with, and the executive team at Talon Aerolytics has real answers to them. They’ve been able to leverage the capabilities of drones to create a business and impact an entire industry, and they shared their insights and experiences around how they’ve been able to do just that.
In Part 2 of this article, the team will discusses how they’re able to achieve tangible results as well as why it’s a mistake to wait to start flying a drone.
Creating and Using a Complete Drone Solution
Talon Aerolytics is a vertical data company based in West Point, Georgia. They capture and deliver data via a drone for major clients in the telecommunications industry. They have their own collaborative content system where they store, house and deliver that data device agnostically on any mobile device. They also employ 100% US Military Veterans in their field services and editing teams.
Tim Dunnigan is the President and Co-founder of Talon, and saw first-hand what the landscape looked like in the utility industry over the past few years as it began to reshape itself. They were being approached by multiple individuals who were looking to line up investments in their own drone businesses to service this industry. Dunnigan and his team knew that many people would be entering the drone space and recognized these people would need to house and enhance their data.
“Our early play was to ask, ‘what are people going do with all that drone data?’” Dunnigan said. “We recognized that was a question people were going to need to have answered, whether they realized it or not, and so we formed as a data company. We’re not committed to one drone or another or even a particular type of camera. We do have some flagship systems, but ultimately our play is the data play. People have questions around what they can and should do with all that data, which includes a massive amount of photos and videos, and we think we have answers for that.”
Talon offers their clients a complete solution, as they collect that data with the drones, edit that data, store it and then deliver it. Being able to provide that kind of complete solution is something they believe provides them with a competitive advantage in light of the fact that so many others focus on one aspect or another of the process, leaving others or the clients themselves to sort out the rest of the details.
Their focus on data is especially relevant, as this component is becoming more and more critical. The capture of the data is typically what people focus on, as conversations and discussion often center on particular models or manufacturers. However, with the way technology has progressed the capture phase can often be treated as a given. Significant questions have and are arising about what is going to be done with this data, and when it can be accessed or utilized. That’s something Talon has dealt with in a direct manner.
“We collect data in various forms, put that data in our database and then deliver it at what we call the ‘time of need’,” Dunnigan said. “That ‘time of need’ changes from person to person, client to client, and job to job, but it’s an essential consideration when we’re talking about being able to get someone the info they need to make decisions that will impact their entire project.”
Being able to define that ‘time of need’ is a critical part of being able to effectively take advantage of the capabilities that drones provide. Unlike alternative and more traditional data capture methods, UAVs provide users with the ability to quickly utilize and act upon this info.
Approach and Implementation
When commercial drone technology first came on the scene, everyone had a very basic understanding of what UAVs could do, which meant people had questions that were focused on basic things like upfront costs, training and what a drone would actually be doing. Now that more people understand the capabilities, questions are far more specific.
Organizations like Talon need to communicate how and why this technology is applicable to a specific company or project. Can a UAV get more detail? What does a drone do that a climber can’t? Is the UAV replacing a piece of equipment that’s already being used? Being able to answer those questions is essential.
“From a business perspective, probably the biggest concern is around cost transformation,” Dunnigan mentioned. “It’s about what are they replacing, and then whether or not they can afford to pay for this kind of system. Questions are about what the drone could be doing that people are currently doing, and then what kind of an impact that can have on costs.”
That said, many stakeholders are moving beyond questions about cost transformation and want to know about more of the practicalities, especially when it comes to safety. Being able to increase efficiency and effectiveness is a matter of degree, but the concept of being able to now be 100% safe is one that resonates in this industry, especially in light of recent tragedies.
“Unfortunately, we just saw another young person fall off a tower in Kentucky, and they later died of their injuries,” Dunnigan said. “Climbing towers has been hailed by some as the most dangerous job in the country. The thing is, we’re not trying to replace the climber. We’re trying to make them more efficient at what they do, so that when a climb is required, if you already have the data which we’ve collected safely via a drone, you can climb that tower with the confidence they wouldn’t have had previously. With that info, they know what’s up there, they know what they need, and they’re only going to repair the things that are required.”
A key aspect of being able to get into the air to ensure people stay safe on the ground relates to being able to do so legally. The Section 333 Exemption process provides operators permission to legally enter the National Airspace System (NAS), and anyone looking to operate a drone for commercial purposes needs to have one. While Part 107 will undoubtedly change things, legal challenges around this process have been cited by many as a reason for their hesitation to get involved.
Knowing what was at stake and what sort of difficulties were evident in this area, Talon took a proactive approach to it. It’s made a difference for them in terms of how they’re able to operate, but also for their clients in direct and indirect ways.
“When we decided to start our company, they brought me on as a full time compliance person,” said Roland Beason, Chief Counsel for Talon. “We knew the clients that we were going to target would be interested in how we were insured and how we were compliant. Having our own internal compliance department is huge for us, because it allows us to effectively educate our customers about what the rules actually are and that’s important, because many times they don’t necessarily know.”
Talon is very proactive in the regulatory space, but that approach is far from the only thing they’re doing to ensure they’re operating legally and safely. They have a policy of hiring highly experienced pilots and follow a detailed preflight checklist before every flight by utilizing Skyward, a drone operations management platform, to ensure they’re flying in safe airspace. Skyward also stores the flight logs, regulatory authorization, and insurance information that Talon needs to comply with the FAA. That info can be passed along to customers or anyone else who needs to know about these flight details when necessary.
Being able to intelligently communicate with customers and even with the FAA itself around these issues provides Talon with a huge advantage. Beason mentioned he’s in contact with someone at the FAA on a daily basis, and the ability to have this kind of dialogue with customers and government officials helps ensure they’re staying ahead of issues and misunderstandings.