The Key to Success with Drones for Environmental Applications: Diligence

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For utilities interested in operating drones along transmission and distribution rights-of-way, an EPRI study offers this insight: A full-fledged drone program can significantly bolster wildlife, vegetation management, resource mapping, and an ever-expanding list of other environmental programs, but success depends on careful planning and evaluation of costs, risks, and limitations.

Drones can be used for numerous environmental applications along rights-of-way. Examples include marking power lines to reduce bird collisions, surveying bird nests prior to line work, counting wildlife, tracking marked animals, and documenting vegetation health and intrusions into rights-of-way. Small, high-resolution cameras, infrared cameras, software for generating three-dimensional models, and numerous other sensors are expanding drones’ capabilities.

Among best practices recommended by EPRI:

  • Hardware, software, and firmware: These require careful selection and regular maintenance and updates.
  • Mission planning: The flight operators, data analysis team, and end users of the data need to agree on mission parameters and deliverables. Preflight checklists can minimize forgotten tasks.
  • Data storage and management: Selecting the right solution requires consideration of many factors such as the frequency and scope of missions, camera resolution, and types of sensor measurements.
  • Insurance: Traditional insurance plans may not adequately cover drone missions, so utilities may need to evaluate alternatives.
  • Privacy: Because drones operating in rights-of-way will inevitably collect images of the public and adjacent properties, utilities should adhere to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s voluntary privacy guidelines.
  • Flight logs: These can be used to document training, maintenance, firmware updates, flight locations and durations, mission goals, and unexpected incidents.
  • Electrical impacts: The electrical environment around high-voltage lines can potentially impact drone operations. Utility staff need to understand and account for these impacts in planning missions.
  • Training: Sufficient training in the use of drones should be provided to utility staff.

The results of the study can help utilities decide whether to start their own drone program or contract for these services—and formulate appropriate requirements if they choose the latter.

Artwork by Kirk Anderson