The drones are here! Sounds like something from the Star Wars series. At UTC Telecom & Technology 2015, during one of the many educational sessions, we had some fascinating discussions on the potential use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), which are remotely controlled by a human or computer.
Phil Jones of Aviation Unmanned, said future applications for UAS are limited only by our imagination, but for now, critical infrastructure applications for the Critical Infrastructure Industry in the United States have to operate within very specific parameters. He provided an overview of regulations being developed for those applications targeted for use in the electric utility industry.
A decade ago the use of UAS would have been very difficult in the utility, public safety or entertainment industry due to the potential risk if the controller lost control. But the ability to address that risk has been growing, For example, drones have the “sense and avoid” ability to remove the potential for collisions. Other safety requirements are being integrated into UAS to address loss of control and flight systems failure, as well as the ability to control multiple drones simultaneously.
What initial applications are drones are being used for? Greg Angst of Centerpoint Energy provided an overview (no pun intended) of which electric utilities are using UAS for specific applications. He expanded on specific applications Centerpoint is considering, such as the use of third parties to provide inspection services. In addition, Greg restated his review belief that available applications will continue to expand and will become a very valuable tool for utilities.
As of now, utilities are limited to “line of sight” control, with a major goal being to have the ability reach beyond line of sight to increase the reach into areas that are inaccessible due to terrain or a natural disaster. The primary mission of a UAS is data collection that wouldn’t be available normally, increasing the knowledge of what is happening in a specific area. Additional benefits include improved maintenance, assistance during construction, security and the potential to assist during repairs.
One discussion, which is ongoing to the UAS conversation, was addressed by Kevin Cookler of the Lerman Senter, PLLC, law firm. He offered up a review of current requirements related to drone operations. Kevin shared the process that the industry and regulators are working to develop best practices as part of the proposed rule-making.
There were other discussions that added to the panel presentation, as we talked about the value dedicated RF Spectrum would have to the UAS industry, along with capabilities of the onboard computer systems where the UAS would return to a predesignated location in the event the UAS loses its control link. Securing data to prevent its potential hijacking was also expanded on as well as the encryption and/or scrambling of the data collected and control systems.
UAS deployment is a hot topic, and it was reflected in the attendance at this particular session by people from utilities, engineering firms and manufacturers. All of the attendees said the current process of working with the Federal Aviation Administration, while a slow process, is a logical step to minimize unintended consequences. This will be an ongoing conversation, and one well worth following at events such as UTC Telecom & Technology.