At West Oregon Electric Cooperative in Vernonia, Oregon, drones are making quick work of jobs that once took days to complete.
Like many rural electric utilities, a lot of West Oregon’s lines run through rugged terrain with large trees and thick brush. Inspecting those lines has traditionally presented a major logistical challenge to crews. Enter unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones.
“When we used to inspect rights-of-way the old-fashioned way, we’d have to send three or four guys to trample through the brush for 4 or 5 miles,” says WOEC Operations Manager Don Rose.
“That job could sometimes take up to six guys two days to complete. Now we send two guys to fly a drone, and the entire inspection takes about an hour and a half. The video quality we get is exceptional, so we get all the information we need from the drone.”
West Oregon’s drone program is a little more than a year old, and Don says its benefits have made the cooperative’s investment in the technology, training and certification process well worth it.
Launching a drone program responsibly requires much more than the initial investment in one or more drones. As drone applications and business uses have exploded in recent years, the Federal Aviation Administration has tightened regulation of the industry.
FAA regulations require anyone using drones for business to be certified UAS pilots, and individuals and businesses must carry liability insurance for their drone operations.
“When we first started out, there was a lot less regulation,” Don says.
West Oregon turned to General Pacific’s Northwest Drone Academy to get five of their linemen certified as Part 107 pilots.
Part 107 refers to the section of the U.S. code of federal regulations that governs drone use. General Pacific offers a two-day Part 107 Certification Class that culminates with taking the Part 107 exam. The cost for non-local students is $1,200 and includes the cost of meals during class time, lodging and the $150 testing fee. Local students who don’t require lodging pay $900.
Classroom training is not required to pass the exam. Many people opt to prepare on their own, using any of the myriad free or cheap resources available online. A pdf of the FAA’s “Remote Pilot—Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Study Guide” is easily accessible with a quick google search, and many videos on Part 107 preparation are available on YouTube.
Utilities that aren’t ready to invest in an in-house drone program also have the option of contracting drone work out. For certain specialized needs, hiring professionals is often the better option.
Timberland Helicopters in Ashland, Oregon, has provided aerial solutions to electric and natural gas utilities for decades. Timberland General Manager Mark Gibson says the company began investing in drone technology and expanding its services into the UAS space about five years ago.
“Drone technology is absolutely here and is going to continue to grow,” Mark says. “There are many valuable applications for the utility industry, and there are applications out there we don’t even know yet. There’s so much potential.”
Timberland offers a full lineup of drone services, including simple inspections and more specialized services such as infrared or corona inspections, beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations and payload operations such as pulling line across a river, canyon or other difficult terrain.
“There is a lot of potential for UAS applications in the utility space,” Mark says. “They can’t do everything, but they can save a lot of time and improve safety. Drones can keep a guy from having to climb a tower in bad weather or trudging through snow for miles. It can make mapping systems more cost effective. There are so many useful applications for this technology in the utility space.”
Timberland partnered with General Pacific to develop the Northwest Drone Academy. In addition to its FAA Part 107 Certification Class, the academy also offers mission-specific and specialized training, including 3D point cloud mapping, asset monitoring, corona, external load, line pulls, LIDAR, multispectral imaging, photogrammetry, surveillance, asset protection, thermography and videography/photography.
Most UAS applications fall into two categories: reconnaissance and payload operations. Reconnaissance is often easier and less costly than payload operations because the latter requires drones that can carry lines or equipment effectively. Reconnaissance drones are often small and inexpensive. Some models are available for less than $1,000.
For any utility considering an in-house drone program, consultation with an aerial solution provider might be a good starting point. Discussing needs and objectives with a professional up front can simplify the drone selection and acquisition process and help utilities decide which services to train for in-house and which services might be better to hire out.