Flying Dreams

Can drones help co-ops patrol remote right of ways?

Flying Dreams

CREC, based in Stillwater, Okla., has added ATVs and UAVs to its fleet to assist line crews in restoring outages more quickly. Photos by Larry Mattox/CREC

Three years ago, Dennis Krueger attended a meeting looking for jobs for western Oklahoma. He came away with an even loftier notion—drones. 

That day Krueger caught wind of a budding Oklahoma industry devoted to the research, development and use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). 

UAVs, or what most folks refer to as “drones,” are considered by many to be the most innovative development in aviation since Orville and Wilbur Wright. The space-age airships come in all shapes; looking like hybrid helicopters, paper airplanes, alien spacecraft or something a child built out of Legos. One thing they all have in common: no pilot. UAVs are controlled by an operator on the ground or, in some cases, are preprogrammed to fly on their own.

Captivated by what he learned that day—and in subsequent meetings with leaders in UAV research in Oklahoma—Krueger realized the potential for drones to play a significant role in the future of many industries. A leader in rural development circles, at the time Krueger served as general manager of Kiwash Electric Cooperative in Cordell, Okla. He retired from his position in January 2016. 

“I could easily see that rural electric distribution and transmission could use this technology, as well as oil and gas pipelines, agriculture crop surveillance and storm destruction surveys in the tornado belt,” Krueger recalls. Furthermore, he thought western Oklahoma’s wide-open skies might provide an excellent UAV testing ground, perhaps creating a welcome uplift in the rural economy. 

In 2013, Kiwash Electric owned and maintained over 3,000 miles of power line. 

“That’s the equivalent of driving from Weatherford to Washington, D.C. and back, and we had to patrol all that,” Krueger recalls. “It doesn’t take much to realize that one UAV in the air inspecting those lines would be much faster, easier and safer than driving it.”

It also saves money. By Krueger’s estimate, a drone could have saved his co-op roughly $25,000 per year in line inspection costs alone. When weighed with UAVs’ other operational gains, electric co-ops across the nation are taking notice.

Last year, Krueger carried his findings to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), helping draft a resolution that, if approved at NRECA’s 2016 annual meeting, will allow the organization to lobby the federal government for regulations making commercial drone use viable for electric cooperatives. 

Regulation of UAVs in the U.S. airspace falls to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Current FAA regulations prohibit drones for commercial use from flying above 200 feet in altitude or operating within 500 feet of persons other than those operating the drone. They can’t fly at night or weigh over 55 pounds, and the drone must stay within sight of its operator at all times. For electric co-ops owning thousands of miles of hard-to-reach electric line, the line of site provision is particularly vexing. No night flights also restrict a co-op’s ability to use drones for 24/7 storm assessments and other tasks. 

The FAA is expected to issue its final ruling on drones sometime this summer. 

“This is something that could make or break our ability to use UAVs as a daily tool,” Krueger says. “If we don’t get the FAA rule right, this industry goes away as far as co-ops are concerned.”

A Buzz and Beyond

South of Stillwater, a DJI Quadcopter lifts off from the doorway of a warehouse where a 70-inch screen captures live footage transmitted by the drone’s high definition video camera. The drone’s props, each blade measuring 13 inches in length, gyrate in unison with a high-pitched whine that fades to nothing as it climbs. 

For a moment, the drone hovers, sending back images of the individuals watching it rise, each one thinking what no one says aloud: “Cool.”

Dubbed the Power Support Responder by its owner, Central Rural Electric Cooperative (CREC), this drone means serious business. As part of CREC’s new outage response unit, it will soar over storm-damaged areas, relaying images to on-the-ground teams in rugged all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) outfitted with equally sophisticated equipment. Video footage is simultaneously streamed to analysts in the Systems Operation Center—CREC’s nerve center for operations during outages. When its battery dwindles after 18.5 minutes, like a homing pigeon, the drone is programmed to return to base and juice up. In this case, “base” is an ATV, outfitted with battery chargers.  

As CREC CEO David Swank explains, the drone’s ability to see up, down, and around allows the co-op to see into areas impassable due to downed trees, debris, icy roads, floodwater or other obstacles.

“Drones are game changers for electric cooperatives,” Swank says. 

He makes his case by citing the December 27 ice storm that left half the state without power for up to two weeks. Following the storm, boggy roads forced CREC to hire bulldozers to drag their bucket trucks to affected locations.  “The drone’s ability to see blind sections and relay images back to us is invaluable. With that information, we will know better what to expect and exactly where to allocate our resources before our trucks even leave the warehouse,” Swank says.

Had Responder been on board during the ice storm, he adds, it could have reduced member outage time by half.

Jumping In

When questioned about the current regulatory environment and CREC’s ability to use its drone effectively, Swank agrees in part with Krueger. 

“Certainly, FAA regulations supersede a co-op’s ability to use drone technology in the most proactive way,” he points out. 

On the other hand, CREC’s position is, why wait? 

“We believe there is a way to use this technology now,” Swank says. “Our effort here is to put an engineering model in place that meets the regulatory environment where it is.” 

Working in unison with the ATVs and personnel on the ground, the Power Support Responder is compliant with current FAA rules, but to fully integrate the drone into its daily operations, CREC requires a special exemption for commercial use from the FAA. CREC is currently awaiting an exemption with hopes to receive the permit later this year—just in time for the co-op to welcome a second flying machine to its fleet. The S1000 octocopter promises even bigger and better performance, says David Freeman, CREC director of systems intelligence. More importantly, its design allows for a more customized payload. For instance, an infrared camera outfitted with digital zoom. 

“The thermal camera will show us where hot spots are along our system. It will help us detect cracked insulators and identify other maintenance needs along our lines,” Freeman says. 

Future ‘bells and whistles’ could include 3D imaging to reveal vegetation encroaching on the right of way, ultraviolet cameras to detect arcing, or radio frequency sensors capable of picking up noise emission from electrical equipment. That’s not everything: Applications for drone technology are developing at super-sonic speeds. Under the auspices of OSU’s new Unmanned Systems Research Institute (USRI), teams from across the University are developing technology, conducting research and constructing otherworldly machines with enough collective “Oh, wow” factor to fill Boone Pickens Stadium.

Directing the work is Dr. Jamey Jacob, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and executive director of the USRI. Jacobs says the USRI aims to foster a collaborative environment where students and academics of various applied science disciplines can come together, share knowledge and build, in layman speak, some very cool stuff. 

UAVs capable of flying into gathering storms to take thermodynamic measurements and other indicators of killer tornadoes; ocean crawlers that dive to the deepest depths to explore and record life; software that allows unmanned vehicles to detect and avoid obstacles—a bird, a whale, a plane—virtually anything that crosses their path. As far out as it sounds, these and other developments are not long away. 

“Imagine a car hits a power pole. The impact triggers a signal to a UAV at co-op headquarters that takes off on its own, flies to the impact location, surveys the damage, and communicates that information back to co-op headquarters,” Jacob says.

Imagine a UAV capable of flying in an ice storm while spraying de-icer over the power lines. Imagine if its wings also served as solar panels, soaking up energy from the sun and providing hours of uninterrupted fly time. Imagine a lineman could avoid one more dangerous climb up a utility pole by sending a UAV to inspect damages first. Imagine a world without power outages. 

These aren’t pipe dreams; they are possibilities. For electric co-ops and their members, the future looks very fascinating, indeed.  OKL Article End

Mary Logan Wolf