As soon as I graduated from engineering school, I successfully checked something off my bucket list by acquiring my private pilot’s license. Competing household budget demands have prevented me from exercising this privilege. Imagine my excitement when the recent drone developments became known – I can now dream of being a drone pilot!
Immediately my thoughts shifted to drone applications that would be of value in the transmission/utility world:
- Annual line inspections
- Initial route evaluations
- Site access (acquisition, construction)
- Insulator damage assessment
- Rights-of-way management (vegetation, encroachments)
- Construction progress monitoring
- Asset inventories
- Construction damage evaluation
- Vandalism investigation
- Storm troubleshooting and repair planning
The number of potential applications is only limited by one’s imagination, so this is obviously not a complete list. The potential value of drone applications for the utility industry is enormous.
An ongoing challenge is getting the necessary regulatory approvals that will hopefully allow safe drone operation. Utilities, rightly so, are rigorously focused on safety. There will be the understandable tension between applying the new technology as quickly as possible and the rigor required by regulators to ensure safe operation in all airspace environments.
We are all aware of the reality of unexpected consequences. Regulators are trying to “get it right,” but only until drones are widely used in a variety of applications will all the ramifications become better known, as is often the case.
The Federal Aviation Administration has a target date of late 2015 for formulating the rules for drones. Most agree that this is an aggressive schedule and, initially, only small, low-flying drones are expected to have regulations in place. Guidelines for larger units are expected to take much longer to develop. None of this will be effective to mitigate the desire to apply this technology, not only by utilities, but many other industries. Utilities are, and should be, actively involved in the required and ongoing comment period for these regulations.
The FAA has granted some exemptions to allow very limited testing of drone technologies in certain situations. These tests will allow data-gathering and experience that can be brought to bear on the final regulations.
San Diego Gas & Electric has received approval to validate drone technology in a very limited airspace within its service territory. The test areas are located in sparsely populated airspace and are strictly limited to a defined area. The test area also has no residences or businesses. Obviously, this does not reflect typical utility corridor conditions.
However, once SDG&E validates its research, it plans to seek broader approval from the FAA to apply the technology more widely within service territories. Other utilities will likely learn much from the results of these efforts.
How many times as a child or parent have you heard something similar to, “It always seems like a good idea until someone gets hurt!” Not surprisingly, there are already documented (but debated) events where drones have conflicted with regulated airspace and created potential accidents with commercial aircraft. This cannot be allowed to happen, so the cautious approach to formulating the regulations is understandable. U.S. airspace is some of the busiest in the world, so addressing conflict avoidance will be critical.
As those involved in the utility industry, we would be wise to watch these developments closely, because I believe eventually this technology will be a daily part of our work.
Technology innovates and changes exponentially. Regulations innovate and change incrementally.
— Author unknown
So I will continue to dream exponentially of being a drone pilot while waiting patiently for incremental regulatory approvals. And perhaps you will see me sitting on my porch waiting for an Amazon drone to deliver my first drone.