How Top Electrical Utilities are Mitigating the Risk Associated with Unmanned Aviation Operations

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How Top Electrical Utilities are Mitigating the Risk Associated with Unmanned Aviation Operations

Alyssa Martin

Safety is a huge concern for electrical utility companies and rightfully so. There seems to be a risk to human life and damage to property around every corner.

To manage this risk utilities have a long history of thoughtful asset management, becoming more and more efficient and safe as technological advancements have afforded them the opportunity.

Of course, there are often trade-offs when it comes to matters of safety and efficiency.

The adoption of crewed aircraft for patrolling transmission lines is just one such instance. The use of manned aircraft allows utilities to patrol or inspect more lines and structures in a day than if they were to walk or drive their right of way.

The downside of using crewed aircraft for these activities is that while major asset damage or vegetation encroachments are easy enough to catch while flying by at 60 mph, more subtle damage or loose and missing hardware that would no doubt lead to an outage during the next storm may go unnoticed.

At the same time, these low-altitude flights near electrified power lines are some of the most dangerous flying aviators will attempt in the civilian world.

We were all reminded of the risks associated with operating helicopters by the widely publicized Kauai helicopter crash killed seven in 2019.

The pilot encountered bad weather but decided to continue the journey resulting in a devastating crash. Evidence from that crash has shown that the pilot was inexperienced with the flight conditions encountered, and the pilot had not received enough training to fly safely.

As a result of these helicopter accidents, flights are becoming more and more expensive. Some utilities have even begun requiring 2-pilots per aircraft and further offsetting cost efficiency of helicopter patrol of power lines.

For these reason, electric utilities of all sizes have been using small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) for several years and the adoption of drones by electric utilities for aerial patrols of their overhead assets has produced staggering positive results.

The lower slower flight of the unmanned drones not only provides more inclusive and higher resolution work products, but the rare loss of these aircraft comes with much less downside.

Small, unmanned aircraft are just that – they’re small. Their collision with the ground or anything else means less damage and often time zero chance of human life being lost when compared to an incident involving a crewed aircraft.

Not that such incidents should be taken lightly. Unmanned aviation is still aviation and there are risks. The risk with respect to using drones is definitely lower.

Along with the benefits of lower risk afforded to utilities by sUAS technology, often times unmanned aircraft is able to complete tasks at a fraction of the cost.

This cost savings helps companies get more done with the finite resources they have and can ensure that their personnel and contractors return to their families at the end of the day.

Is BVLOS an Opportunity or Risk?

The opinion of many in aviation is that the greatest value-add of unmanned systems can’t be harnessed until beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations can be commercialized at scale.

As a standard, the FAA requires Part-107 operators (i.e. commercial sUAS operators) to maintain a visual line of sight with their aircraft.

Meaning operating an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) farther than it can be seen with the unaided eye – or when view of the UAV is obstructed by trees, buildings, hills, cliffs, etc. – is considered unsafe and illegal.

That’s not to say BVLOS operations of UAVs are impossible. The FAA has been granting waivers to operators who wish to conduct BVLOS operations, but these waivers require a cumbersome application process and the waivers come with conditions that limit the economic benefit the technology and experience operators can achieve for stakeholders.

Even for service providers and manufacturers like Soaring Eagle Technology and Censys Technologies with nearly a 100% success rate of being granted waivers to the visual line of sight requirement, the application process and conditions outlined in these waivers render the lawful use of BVLOS capable aircraft impractical for the most common of sUAS applications.

With the existing regulatory hurdles, the most practical application of BVLOS operations using UAVs tends to be along linear corridors like that of electrical transmission lines, canals, and various kinds of pipelines that require reoccurring mapping and inspection.

Over the last few years, these same types of corridors have been the focus of BVLOS operations having received expedited approval through the FAA’s Special Government Interest (SGI) waiver process.

Along with this expedited approval, SGI waivers have also helped pave the way to fewer conditions on non-SGI approval for BVLOS operations using drones.

In July of 2019 Soaring Eagle Technologies was granted SGI approval for BVLOS as part of the Hurricane Barry response in Louisiana.

Trevor Perrott, CEO of Censys Technologies the manufacturer of the aircraft used by Soaring Eagle Technologies remarked:

“I’m ecstatic to see a great partner and customer of ours employ our technology with such an emphasis on safety to deliver exceptional value to energy asset owners.

I could not be happier with the partnership we have in [Soaring Eagle], and I’m confident we’ll continue to set standards together.

I’m grateful to the FAA for approving the operation without requiring remote visual observers, as yesterday shows BVLOS can be executed safely and economically.”

Most non-SGI waivers for BVLOS operations that have been granted since 2019 still require remote visual observers, but with the addition of detect-and-avoid sensors that have been added to UAVs manufactured by Censys Technologies and others such requirement could become a thing of the past.

Remote visual observers add labor costs to sUAS operations and detract from the economic benefit that many believe is already attainable with existing technology and properly trained personnel.

But the FAA is not without reason in its requirements of BVLOS operators. The FAA has a job to do and that job is to keep airspace safe.

They’ve been doing this so well for crewed aviation for so long that most of us don’t think twice about boarding a commercial airliner.

UAVs are newest participants to our airspace, and there are already a lot of these aircraft to manage that number will grow in the years to come. A conservative approach to integrating sUAS operators into the US airspace shouldn’t be a surprise.

At the same time, the FAA is a public entity that takes its direction from public need and benefit.  The public benefit of BVLOS operations is apparent to most, but regulation on how to manage the risk associated with these types of operations is still being defined.

Just as the FAA and public have accepted the risks associated with planes and helicopters, in time the risk associated with drones will become more palatable. Especially in the scenarios when the risk is much lower than using crewed aircraft.

No risk is not possible in any scenario, but low risk certainly is. No risk means not flying at all.

This was the sentiment made by Jon Damush, CEO of Iris Automation during a panel discussion about the recent FAA ARC (Aviation Rulemaking Committee) recommendations report around BVLOS:

“Not no risk, but low risk… the public has already shown a level of acceptance in terms of aviation incident rate and consequences… There are still on average four midair collisions between crude aircraft every year in the United States.”

Regulations for drones are in existence today and are being put into place to ensure that operators do their part to mitigate all risks within their control.

To some, however, the current path to become a Part-107 certified commercial drone pilot is a very low bar, which presents the potential downside of BVLOS operations being the risk of unqualified operators at the controls.

While it is suggested that aspiring pilots attend third-party sUAS flight training before being able to fly a UAV commercially, operating a beyond visual line of sight safety requires much more than a foundational experience in aviation and aeronautical decision making.

While many experience aviators approach unmanned operations with the same professionalism and regard for safety that they would any crewed operation and the jump from visual light of sight operations (VLOS) to BVLOS like going from a private pilots license to an instrument rating, this not necessarily the industry standard.

The FAA must issue drone pilots with a remote pilot certificate to fly commercially, but there is no universal standard that qualifies a remote pilot in command (RPIC) to conduct BVLOS operations.

In a quote from Will Paden from the same seminar mentioned earlier by Soaring Eagle Technologies,

“Unmanned aviation is aviation, train like it. We’ve been doing it this way for years.”

Growing Concern of Chinese Manufactured Drones

The concern around Chinese manufactured UAVs has recently been heightened by the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

It’s being suggested that even though China has put a pause on selling UAVs into Russia and Ukraine, the Chinese are still supplying Russian forces with Ukrainian positional information gathered from the Chinese-manufactured drones that were already in Ukraine prior to the conflict.

In 2020 the cyber security concerns around Chinese manufactured UAVs lead to the drafting of the American Security Drone Act. If passed would prevent the United States federal government from purchasing drones from any nation identified as a national security threat.

Supporters of this bill agree that this legislation would help prevent the possibility of drones being used as a tool of espionage by other nations.

The opponents of this bill are more skeptical, declaring that banning the purchase of these drones will not help save as much money and lives.

How Do Top Electrical Utilities Mitigate the Risk Associated with Unmanned Aviation?

They Lean on Experience

Aviation isn’t a new industry. Unmanned aerial systems aren’t an industry of their own, drones are merely a newer technology than crewed aircraft.

Just like in any other industry, there are new technological advance being made all the time.

Industry veterans with decades of the context and experience are in most cases the ones who are best at applying the newest technology in the most effective and safe way – use them.

They Don’t Shortcut sUAS Training

There is wisdom that comes from aviation experience through training, but the path to unwavering wisdom is not always linear.

With experience comes confidence, and at times that confidence leads to someone backsliding in their wisdom. Often times the pilot with 500 hours, while still with much to learn, is safer and more by the book than an overconfident pilot with 1,000 hours of flight time.

Experienced aviators and instructors know this and refuse to cut corners, by advancing pilots to more advanced training when they don’t have the experience to make use of it.

They Use Crewed Aviation Standards as Guiding Light

Again – Aviation isn’t new. There just happens to be newer and exciting technology within the aviation industry.

Pretending as if you need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to training, safety, and rules of engagement is foolish. Decades of lessons learned are already at the disposal of sUAS operators.

This does however, mean that the new members to the industry whose aviation background is exclusively in unmanned operations bear a responsibility to educate themselves on the regulations and best practices that already exist.

They Regard Cyber Security Risk as Important as Lose of Human Life

The risk of cyber-attacks is a serious one.

It is as important as the risks associated with lose of human life and property because protected data in the wrong hands can certainly lead to not just damaged property but also the loss of human life.

For this reason, US manufacture aircraft and equipment is always preferred.

Have Questions About sUAS Inspection of Mapping Services?

Call or text Brendan Alan Barrett at 281-857-6543

Or pre-schedule a time to chat by phone [HERE].

Soaring Eagle Technologies is a leading service provider for aerial mapping as well as critical infrastructure inspections and reporting services. 

The Soaring Eagle team specializes in providing private and public customers reliable utility, energy, and infrastructure inspections for hard-to-reach and complex structures with the latest sUAS technology and remote sensors.

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