Episode 03 - NERC Lessons Learned Podcast

July 1, 2019, midnight by Chris Sakr
Last modified July 1, 2019, 4:08 p.m.

Current Drone Usage

Below is the full transcript for this episode. If you'd like to review or follow along with the original .pdf version of this NERC Lesson Learned, click here.

Chris Sakr:It's the not so distant future. You're riding home from a long day at work in your autonomous car, spacing out, and you look up through the glass bubble overhead to a skyline filled with drones whizzing around. You're as accustomed to seeing this as we are to seeing power lines overhead today. Maybe you don't even notice at all.

Drones are everywhere, from movie screens to Amazon deliveries and even competitive races. We have one here at the Power Pool. We picked it up to get overhead footage for our video courses on source.training. But sometimes great things can't last when stupid people take the wheel. Stay tuned. At the end of the episode, I'll tell you the completely unfunny story of one nameless coworker who made an unbelievably idiotic decision, not one week after we got our drone.

But first, we’ve got to do the important and extremely interesting stuff. On this episode of NERC Lessons Learned, we're going to take a close look at what one utility has done to put these little choppers to the test. This lesson learned: Current Drone Usage from February 28th, 2019, primary interest groups, Transmission and Generation Owners and Operators.

Here's the deal. This lesson learned is extremely self-explanatory. Here's part of the introduction: 

“Some entities have begun using unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs, commonly called drones, for various purposes such as major storm damage survey, line repair, substation, switching station and line inspections, power plant inspections, wind farm, gas pipeline inspections, and security.” 

Reading through the entire document, even a layman like me could completely follow it, and frankly there wasn't much to break down like we usually do. So we thought maybe we could enhance it instead. Enter Alan…

Alan Wayment:I believe that this could be utilized by every utility. I would hope that everybody would have the same interest that we do.

Chris Sakr:That's Alan Wayment, principal engineer for Rocky Mountain Power. He's closely involved in Rocky Mountain's drone program and was kind enough to take some time and talk with me about how his company has begun using drones for a host of purposes.

Instead of our usual documentary format, we thought you'd get more if we just let this super interesting interview play out. You should absolutely read the lesson learned itself, it's linked in in the show notes, and this interview will make a great complement to it. We cover topics like uses, safety, cost savings, and a range of other helpful details. Most of all, we see how Alan and Rocky Mountain are paving the way to a future we pretty much all see on the horizon. Again, you'll hear from me after to explain why certain people should never be given any kind of control of anything ever. But for now, here's the interview with a guy who definitely should, beginning with Alan's outline of the many ways Rocky Mountain is using drones…

Alan Wayment:One of the main ones that we've tried is satellite phasing. That's a method that we have of being able to detect out in the field ... identifying what phase each conductor is. So when we connect them up to a project, everything is correct. In the past, we were using a bucket truck with associated linemen in order to get our test equipment into the proximity of the conductor. And this was pretty expensive. And we thought, we could probably do this with a satellite phasing stick attached to a drone.

We were able to get a drone with sufficient lift capability to do that. We've determined that that function alone has paid for our drone program. We kept the metrics on an ongoing basis, and that has been a very good use of our drones.

We have a number of other items that we've been doing. One is the ability to install line markers on conductors, mainly for bird diverter-type activities. We've been creating some apparatuses to try to do that. We got a 3-D printer which came in very handy to custom make different attachments and the apparatus itself. And we've been successful at landing some of those on our line. We've used them for bird nest inspection. I think a lot of people have done that as well, it worked with our environmental people. We were able to have a camera with sufficient zoom capabilities that we were up high enough that we didn't disturb the bird. So we could tell if they were going to have a nest that had birds in them or not, which would affect our construction abilities.

We use them for new construction inspection to be able to look over towers and even some in substations, although substations aren't particularly high. But our line inspection, we have the wildfire preparations that are going to be using the infrared capability of looking at connectors to determine if we've got any hotspots on the line.

We've used them for access to locations that were inaccessible, mainly like muddy fields. If we didn't want to go tear up a farmer's field to go look at some lines, so we could just fly the drone out there and come back, and that's been pretty successful.

Chris Sakr:How did you determine what the proper drones were for the job? You mentioned ability to get the proper altitude, weight, things like that. How did you determine that?

Alan Wayment:Well we looked at the specifications on the drones. The smaller ones have no lift capability at all. We had a larger one, and it told us what it could lift, and we were clearly within it's lifting capability. This device weighs about a pound and a half, so it's not very heavy. We did some test runs, obviously, to see if we could maintain stability of the drone, and it was rock solid. We didn't have any problems at all.

Chris Sakr:Sure. Was there an initial investment in testing out a few, or was it mostly just look at specs, get the closest one tested out, and it happened to work?

Alan Wayment:As it actually played out, our company had purchased a larger one and a smaller one, and that's what we had to work with. And it turns out that it was capable of doing that. Since then, with some of our other heavier lifting capabilities, we had to go out and spec a drone that had the ability to lift heavier items.

Chris Sakr:And so these are just out-of-the-box consumer drones?

Alan Wayment:Yes, that's correct. We did investigate trying to build one ourself, and that got out of hand. We didn't have the capability of doing that. So they are off the shelf. We've taken a lot of liberties, I guess, with them. We've added some items and put some rails on the bottom so that we can easily attach items, which has made it pretty helpful.

On the first drone we got, a lot of the attachments were proprietary, so you had to go with what they had to offer. The next one, we got a work horse. It's just a platform that we can attach what we want to attach to it, and that's what's really been advantageous to us to be able to do specialized type of things.

Chris Sakr:Sure. Customize it. And can you speak to brand by chance, like what brands you're using?

Alan Wayment:We started out with DJI. I think nearly everybody does. They're a great drone for the money, lots of capability. But we moved on to other manufacturers. Actually, we're not flying DJIs at this time. We've gone to DRONE VOLT and Parrot ANAFIs for the smaller ones. Those are the drones we've been using. But the DRONE VOLT Hercules 10 is our heavier lifting platform right now.

Chris Sakr:And what do you use that for, with the platform?

Alan Wayment:It will easily lift our satellite phasing apparatus, and being able to install these line markers, it has enough lift to do that. We put a gimbal mount on it so it can mount cameras, IR cameras and a standard camera on there very easily. It's also got an attachment that came from the vendor. It's a hook that you can make a release of something, and we were able to use that to pull in. We bought a braided fishing line, and if we had to go over a canyon or something where it might be kind of difficult to get a sock line or a polling line in there, we could first pull in this lightweight fishing line, and then one or two iterations get something that's big enough to pull in conductor. That has been a very interesting use of the device as well.

Chris Sakr:Yeah. Interesting. When you said before that after your first foray into using drones it became apparent that it had paid for itself, can you speak to what that meant specifically. How those numbers shook out in terms of paying for itself? What was the cost savings?

Alan Wayment:Well, when you take a fully loaded person's salary and then the vehicle, and on an hourly basis figure that if you're going to go out in the middle of a desert, and that's where we have to do this a lot, where they're putting in solar farms and wind farms and such, there's quite an expense there. I don't have the exact metrics, but it came out that what used to cost several thousand dollars, we can do for a few hundred dollars now by using our own people with the drone capabilities.

Chris Sakr:Yeah, that's pretty amazing. So are the people operating the drones the same people that would have been doing the equivalent work, it's just sort of subtracting out the vehicle, the transport, things like that? Or is it a different person operating than ordinarily would be doing the work?

Alan Wayment:No, it's the same people. We had engineers go through the courses to get the Part 107 licensing, and they go out and do both now. They fly the drone and they do all the phasing.

Chris Sakr:Very cool. So it's really just more of an efficiency thing. It carves out some elements in the equation, the same people still need to be there to do the work. It's just sort of removing some external costs and bulk barriers. Is that accurate?

Alan Wayment:Yes, that's correct.

Chris Sakr:That's great. That's really cool. I don't know if this is fast forwarding or backpedaling, but I'm just curious: was this something that had to be sold to your organization, even in the test phases? Or was the cost so low that it was like, let's just give this a shot? How did that process go? I think a lot of people listening to this might be wondering like, "I don't know if the higher-ups would really be interested in something like this or if it just seems too far fetched." How did the courting phase of drones go?

Alan Wayment:The way this played out, our company already had an initiative to see what drones could do for us. And I came up with this idea, and we were actually going down the path of purchasing our own drone, and then we found out that we already had some drones being purchased. So we didn't really have to sell it as far as we can do this particular item and save a lot of money. They were already going down that path. But it blended in with what they were trying to do so well that it completely made this into something that the company could see value in.

And as we've continued, we've been buying drones that were more suited for what our purposes are, and the same value has been recognized, and they've been able to fund that for us.

Chris Sakr:Very cool. That's interesting. In your view from where you're sitting, do you see this being a pretty broadly interesting topic to a lot of utilities, or do you think that your utility is unique in that regard?

Alan Wayment:Oh no, I believe that this could be utilized by every utility. I would hope that everybody would have the same interests that we do, and if they wanted to see what we're doing, we'd be happy to talk with them about it and show them. It's very useful for what we've been attempting to do.

Chris Sakr:Yeah. It seems like the cost savings alone should be a pretty inherent selling point. Do you know of other organizations that are currently using drones in interesting ways?

Alan Wayment:I know that we had some contractors do right of way investigation for us using drones, and I know there's wind turbine blade inspection that are using drones for that with artificial intelligence, again. One of the more interesting ones, that I thought was interesting anyway, was boiler inspection in power plants. I know that we have used a more conventional drone for that, but they make one that's kind of in a ball cage so it can roll around and be able to do close inspection inside the boiler. It's a very interesting use.

Chris Sakr:That is.

Alan Wayment:And also underwater inspection of hydrogeneration equipment using essentially a drone that's a submarine type fashion.

Chris Sakr:How is this being monitored? Is it being monitored by multiple different people at the same time, or is it mostly just being used by the person doing the work?

Alan Wayment:One of our company rules is that we have to have two people when we're flying. So that would mean that we have a pilot and then an observer.

Chris Sakr:Okay.

Alan Wayment:And then of course, all of our flights we have to have logged down, so that we know when and what happened during that flight.

Chris Sakr:Are there any generalized security and safety considerations that you guys take into account?

Alan Wayment:Well, on the safety side, the care of the LiPo batteries, we've really tried to be careful with those. I don't know if you've watched YouTube where somebody's damaged outside of a LiPo battery, but it's pretty spectacular.

Chris Sakr:What happens? I haven't.

Alan Wayment:They become a pretty good flaming device.

Chris Sakr:Okay.

Alan Wayment:That's something you don't want to ever have happen.

Chris Sakr:Right. Flaming in the sky is not good.

Alan Wayment:Yeah. We're careful with charging the batteries, of course, transportation of the batteries, especially in an airport. You've got to be careful with how you do that and make sure that you don't have any physical damage to the battery.

For our people, we're looking into—this is all new in our safety department, so we're plowing some fresh ground here, but we were looking at high visibility safety vests, hard hats, safety glasses. We've got be careful what we come up with, because that's what you got to live by from here on out.

Chris Sakr:Right.

Alan Wayment:And of course we avoid flying over any people at all. From the security standpoint, we want to make sure that everything that we gather is only for our use, it's not going to anybody else. Some of the things we look at, there's very little security concerns, and some items could have security concerns.

Chris Sakr:And how do you mitigate the possibility of the more security-intensive items ending up in the wrong place?

Alan Wayment:Pretty much our drones are only gathering data that goes directly to an onboard SD card, and we bring the SD card back at the office and get that loaded directly onto our company systems through our IT-approved methods.

Chris Sakr:Understood. It is traveling through some sort of Bluetooth signal though, right? And that's not something that you guys are mediating at all? Like if there's a video-

Alan Wayment: It comes back to the control. Yeah, that would be going over the air.

Chris Sakr:But that's not the data that you're necessarily concerned about, because anybody with a tall enough ladder or something—the right resources—could probably get the same thing.

Alan Wayment:Yeah. That's true of a lot of things we're looking at. You could just get on a Google map and be able to see the same thing.

Chris Sakr:The use of drones in the fashions that you've outlined, laid out, how would that impact or improve the job of the system operator at the desk?

Alan Wayment:We happened to have a storm that rolled in, a late winter storm, and it caused a lot of damage, wasn't expected, and we were able to bring out a drone, and we did some live streaming there. We're still looking to see what kind of security we would need for live streaming. But the ability to bring that into the emergency command center provided really good information, valuable information on what kind of damage we had, what kind of resources we would need to address the damage and what kind of materials were required. And it also gave us the capability of showing our media people just what we were dealing with, and then they could use those for any kind of media information release that they wanted to do.

We did learn one thing that was interesting, and that is that there is a certain latency of the signal for what people—if they were on the phone or something talking to you and showing you what was going on, there was some time lag in what the bird is seeing versus what you're hearing somebody talk about doing the live streaming.

Chris Sakr:And that particular scenario of the storm. Were the people in the control room operating that drone? Who was operating that drone? Clearly they were looking at the feed of it.

Alan Wayment:We're only licensed right now to do line of sight.

Chris Sakr:Understood.

Alan Wayment:So the person, even out in the field, has to keep the drone within sight. They can't fly over the back of a house or anything of that nature, go around the back of a mountain or something. People in the command center could not fly it at all, they could only see what was being flown.

You can get a drone that has capabilities like accident avoidance and sometimes it doesn't work at all. We had one drone that we were hovering, and all of a sudden it started moving sideways, and it ended up hitting right into a wall. My eyes were open to that, that this is still a technology that you can't take anything for granted. And we had another one that we took it off the ground and all of a sudden it flew up a couple of hundred feet, and then it came right back down and crashed.

I've talked with people and they said, "Oh, we've never had any problems at all," but then when you get down to them telling you what they've really experienced, most people have had a crash. So that's just something you got to bear in mind that this is a new technology and safety is the first thing you got to be responsible with.

Chris Sakr:Piggybacking off of that, but also relating back to how you sold this initially: if someone's listening and they're from an organization, be it at the desk or be it in the field, if they think that there might be a benefit for drones but their company is either on the fence or not even really thinking too much about it, what would you suggest if they wanted to push that up the chain and get something going?

Alan Wayment:Some of the items that we tried, just go out to YouTube, and just about anything you can think of, somebody has tried, and you can show them on a video that this is something that can possibly be accomplished with a drone versus how we're doing it now, and will save some money in the process.

Personally, I think that as soon as we can get to being able to fly a drone without a line of sight, there's going to be a lot of things that we've had people that had to go out and slowly inspect, like in storms and that, that we could just take a drone out of a truck, have them fly up and down the line and be able to determine what went wrong and be able to make repairs in a much quicker fashion.

Chris Sakr:Yeah. That's definitely, I think, the future we're all looking at. Would you be able to, you think, make a forecast on when that might… like how long you think we might be waiting until that day comes?

Alan Wayment:Well they're testing now. I think that it's within the next few years. That's my guess. You've got lots of things to consider. Number one, since you can't see the drone, the drone has to be able to determine if it's flying safely, that something else isn't going to run into it or it's going to run into something else. Those are some things that still have to be worked out.

Fortunately, companies like Amazon that have lots of money that they can see some real value in having deliveries made with drones, they're going to address a lot of this, and I think we're going to ride on their coattails on some of this technology.

Chris Sakr:For an organization just starting out with a pilot project, as you initially started out with your pilot project, what do you think is a safe bet in terms of upfront financial investment, upfront time investment of staff to get acquainted, to get something going? What do you think is a safe estimate?

Alan Wayment:Well, it depends on the scope of what you're trying to do. If you just want something to go out and look at items, maybe patrol a line or whatever, you can get a $1,000 drone. It doesn't take a lot of money to get somebody trained enough to pass their licensing. But if you want something that's getting more sophisticated, there's things like LIDAR and that sort of thing, you're talking upwards maybe a million dollars. It just depends on how deep you want to jump into it.

Chris Sakr:Would you say that that sort of baby step approach is probably a healthy way to give it a shot and just try?

Alan Wayment:I do, but that's not the way my company went. They jumped in and bought a number of small ones and a number of larger ones. I think they were probably into it a quarter of a million dollars.

You just got to realize that there's a chance that you're going to have some hard landings, and if you crash a $1,000 one, that's not that big a deal. If you crash a $50,000 one, people start to ask questions.

Chris Sakr:Kind of a big deal. Yeah…

[Deep Sigh] As I mentioned at the top of the episode, a couple years back, we invested in a drone to capture aerial footage for our courses. A couple of us got certification to fly the thing.

Here’s the rub: our office is less than a mile from Portland International Airport, and at the time drone flights were prohibited within seven miles of that airspace. So taking it out to hone the craft was a little more complicated than we’d expected. We’d pass by the idle drone thinking, “man it would be great to cut work early and take that thing for a spin.” But alas, there was work to be done.

Then, I took a rare sick day. And when I came back I was met with some interesting news that made me smack my palm against my forehead. A teammate who shall remain nameless had decided they simply couldn’t be bothered to wait any longer. They had to fly this drone. They just had to know how it felt to have all this power in the palm of their hand. At least, I’m assuming that’s what they thought when justifying something this stupid.

Anyway, Nameless Co-Worker Man didn’t think, “I bet if I take this thing in the parking lot for a couple minutes and keep it low, odds are no one will really find out.” Oh no, that might actually make sense. Nameless Co-Worker Man brilliantly theorized: “If I were to run this device inside our office, for sure no one will know. That seems like the most intelligent, thoughtful and responsible move.” With no one willing to step up and say, “listen nameless Co-Worker Man, I think this is a stupid idea. Dangerous in fact, but mostly really dumb,” Nameless Co-Worker Man placed the drone in our common area and turned it on, forgetting that the device automatically lifts in the air to hover. He also forgot our office has a ceiling.

From there, legend has it that the drone smashed into our lightweight ceiling, it’s propellers going haywire and breaking, then spun out and smashed directly into our industrial refrigerator. The one with sodas in it for our guests. The propellers snapped and scattered across the room. People were nearly hit. The new device, thankfully mostly in-tact—more so than Mr. Nameless Co-Worker Man’s already fragile ego.

When I was told this story the following morning, I shook my head, face-palmed, and said the only thing a person can say in such a situation: “I take ONE day off!” So I never did again. I sleep here. Forever, into the future.

That future is coming, ladies and gentlemen. Drones will fundamentally change industries and the skies. Unfortunately Northwest Power Pool will not be participating and idiot Nameless Co-Worker Man is definitely not invited. But with companies like Rocky Mountain making a go of it, hopefully the skies will be clearer for takeoff, with no ceilings in sight.  

Thanks so much for listening. We'll see you next time.