How to Scale Your Utility Drone Operations

Unmanned vehicles are growing and developing new capabilities at a rapid pace. After just a few steps, your utility work could become significantly easier and more reliable than it is now. Here is UVT’s guide to scaling utility drone operations.

Your Questions Answered

“Why would I use drones if I can keep doing things the way I am without spending the money?”

Drones aren’t cheap, we don’t deny that, but once your operation gets to a certain point, your team is going to be stretched thin and your most valuable assets become your time and your efficiency. Using drones will help increase the efficiency of your processes, therefore freeing up your people to help more customers. The more customers you can help in a day, the better. That’s what drones can help you with.

“What are some signs that I could benefit from utility drone operations?”

Drones are used for everything in utilities from vegetation programs, general operations, transmission & distribution inspections, storm response, solar field inspection and monitoring, contractor acceptance and many more. Contact us if you want to learn more about how unmanned vehicles could save you energy and time.

Where Do You Start?

We brought in our friend Eric Bitzko, a System Maintenance Supervisor at Pedernales Electric Cooperative (PEC), the largest electric cooperative in the nation, to learn more about the specific steps for and benefits of integrating drones into utility work.

Eric’s advice is to start small and focus on your worst performing areas. For example, you can start by focusing on the specific feeders that have more outage time than the others and inspect those with drones. This method will help you be the most cost-effective with your drone operations when you’re first starting out. UVT offers a DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise QuickTac Bundle and a DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual QuickTac Bundle. These bundles are the perfect starting point for most programs.

The QuickTac Bundles include most of the items that you would need other than third-party applications or streaming solutions. Other accessories that we don't sell but often find useful are power inverters for charging from a vehicle. We recommend getting a Pure Sine Inverter that is at least 1,000 Watts, which you can buy on Amazon.

As your program begins to grow and you realize where you find the most value, then it is time to consider more capable systems like the DJI Matrice 300 RTK with its triple payload capability, ingress protection rating of IP45 and nine-mile range. You can find a complete list of the drones, accessories, payloads and bundles that UVT offers on our website.

Eric also recommends focusing on visual sensors first before complicating your operations with infrared/thermal sensors. Visual sensors, when used properly, can identify a vast majority of problems at a much, much lower cost than infrared/thermal sensors and are capable of a wider variety of uses than infrared/thermal sensors. To learn more about what infrared/thermal imaging means, check out our Complete List of UAV Terms You Need To Know.

The Next Steps

Once you get started, Eric suggests identifying broken equipment, then failing equipment, and then updating legacy framing and equipment. Legacy equipment is outdated or old equipment that may not be currently having issues but likely will in the future, which is why it’s a lower priority than broken or failing equipment.

The next step is to establish your ratio of drones to repair crews. PEC’s ratio is about 1:4 drones:repair crews, but keep in mind that they are the largest electric cooperative in the country. It’s important to develop the drone ratio that best fits your team and your own unique challenges. UVT is happy to discuss different options with you.

As PEC gained momentum and proof of process, they transitioned to using drones for cyclic inspections, or planned inspections of infrastructure that typically occur at a set timeframe and are sometimes regulated. Taking this step with your drone operations will further integrate UAVs into your regular processes which will foster future success.

Proven Increase in Reliability

Implementing drones into your utility work mitigates the mistakes that are often made by human error. Having at-scale drone operations made a huge difference for PEC’s SAIDI measurements, which is a way of calculating reliability.

Once PEC’s utility drone operations were at scale, they went from 103 SAIDI in 2016 to approximately 40 SAIDI minutes so far in 2020. SAIDI minutes, or System Average Interruption Duration Index, is commonly used as a reliability indicator by electric power utilities. Essentially, it’s an Energy industry term that measures business or residence outage in minutes over the course of a year. 

For example, a business that PEC served before their drone operations were at scale would experience 103 outage minutes a year on average, typically due to failure, storms, rehabilitation, etc. As PEC's drone program has grown, they are nearing 40 SAIDI minutes on average, which results in more satisfied customers. To compare, in 2017 the average SAIDI in the United States (excluding major events) was a little under 2 hours, which is still more than the 103 SAIDI that PEC was experiencing before their drone operations were at scale. Overall, this proves the increased reliability that utility drone operations provide.

How UVT Can Help You

UVT has sold, leased, rented, repaired, and consulted Eric and PEC on their program. Even if you have no idea how to get started, contact us and we’ll point you in the right direction. If you have some specific UAV, bundles or payloads in mind, request a quote today. We would love to help you scale utility drone operations that will bring you increased reliability and more happy customers.

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