(8 min read)
In this article:
- Understand how drones are just tools, and there is much more you must consider
- Understand how drones compare to traditional tools
- Understand what other tools are needed to get maximum value from drone inspections
- See why we are a great fit for your drone-based inspection needs
Over the past several years, updated commercial drone rules resulted in an industry overwhelmed by new companies claiming to be “drone inspection experts.” We often receive customer feedback that increasing numbers of unknown and unreferenced companies are submitting proposals for overhead line inspections. These firms tend to significantly underbid and overpromise instant or unproven results. Are they too good to be true?
On the surface, drones offer tremendous value. Drones provide measurable operational safety improvements and are better tools for gathering datasets that unlock many downstream benefits. However, any technology solution requires trusted, competent expertise in order to be effective. Being proficient at flying drones and taking clear pictures is one thing, but understanding how utilities use the data for asset management is a more complex challenge. We’ve put together this short article to highlight some key insights to pick a qualified drone inspection company, as well as the questions you should ask in the selection process.
6 Things to Keep in Mind When Choosing a Drone Inspection Company
1. A strong safety culture will stand out from the competition
First and foremost, proven experience and a strong safety program for working around energized electrical assets are the most critical requirements when inspecting power lines. A vendor who maintains a robust safety program built around utility systems will undoubtedly stand out from the competition. Some qualification questions you should ask upfront:
- Do they comply with Minimum Approach Distance?
- What are their corrective action procedures, and how many events do they have on their record? (Honest companies will be quick to admit mistakes and how they fixed them)
- How much hands-on training is required for drone operators before they can work on utility systems?
- Are their operators in the field educated on electrical system fundamentals?
Another important factor is awareness of the various public safety characteristics of a utility system. Distribution networks span vast and diverse landscapes, making it difficult to have a one-size-fits-all mentality with operational safety. Transmission corridors may present terrain that is impassable or may have long spans with no crossing roadways. Below are some additional questions:
- How do they deconflict line-of-sight issues due to trees and other environmental features?
- How do they mitigate traffic risks while working on roadside assets?
- How do they address assets which are inaccessible, or where inspecting them presents higher safety risk?
- Have they encountered people in the field who are averse to this type of activity? (Experienced firms will have lessons learned from interactions and will have developed steps to make each interaction successful.)
When evaluating whether you’re hiring a qualified inspection company, lower prices may often come with some serious compromises, such as the quality of their safety program. It’s important to keep safety at the top of your list of evaluation criteria.
2. Are you hiring an inspection company, or just an aerial photographer?
High-quality cameras are virtually everywhere nowadays, and almost anyone can take a quality picture with the right tool in their hands. Many off-the-shelf drones have exceptional camera quality and have become popular tools for all types of aerial photographers. It’s easy to see why overhead line inspections have become a popular market for new drone operators. However, there is much more to line inspections than simply taking pictures, so we recommend giving experience and qualifications a second thought because the lower prices may be too good to be true.
Most aerial photographers are great at taking pictures, but they often work with a broad range of subjects. An inspection requires performing an actual assessment of each component, understanding what is serviceable and how to prioritize adverse conditions and defects to streamline the utility’s existing workflows.
The common deliverable provided by an aerial photographer is a file containing all the raw images collected from their flights. If you were handed a memory stick with terabytes of images, do you have a software system to map each of those images to the correct asset? Do you have adequate tools and resources to find defective components? If you hire the aerial photographer, it’s very likely your personnel will spend countless hours looking through images to extract the insights.
An experienced inspection company will help you mitigate downstream risks, such as knowing which angles of equipment are best. The experienced company will capture enough images to have a full perspective of your assets to perform a thorough inspection. Plus, the massive amounts of data will also require complex process solutions and quality control to ensure no system safety/reliability issues are missed.
When critical issues are missed, a resulting outage can lead to potential risks of contact when line crews respond. A broken tie-wire can contribute to dangerous line galloping situations. These downstream risks are easily mitigated by a vendor who is experienced in various types of utility systems and has a robust quality program. Therefore, we believe the best inspection companies employ experienced utility professionals.
3. Properly trained and experienced utility professionals are a must
Until drones are fully autonomous and regulations broadly allow beyond line-of-sight drone operation (which could be a very long time), there will be Part 107 certified drone operators on the ground. Did you know the FAA only requires a drone operator to pass a basic knowledge exam to legally fly a drone for commercial purposes? There is no federal requirement for hands-on flight training or knowledge of utility systems. Many new firms may simply hire Part 107 certified operators without any foreknowledge of or hands-on training with utility systems.
To add to this, many companies who lack experience working on utility systems may not have access to utility infrastructure to provide adequate wire environment training for their drone operators. A company focused on serving utilities should have a safety culture consistent with the industry and referenceable work.
Moreover, a qualified drone inspection company staffed by career utility professionals will have a breadth of expertise packed into their services. Grid networks are complex systems as it is, but compound this with decades of changes to construction standards, near endless service territory characteristics, and your own unique requirements – and the best solutions for your needs will require deep domain expertise. Experienced utility professionals will have a solid understanding of trends in utility industry innovation and knowledge of what has changed over time, which will help you achieve long-term goals and increase your bottom line.
4. Depth of utility subject matter expertise is as important as the tools and technology
In recent years, there has been a lot of industry buzz about various types of drone platforms, brands, and the functionality. Many utilities have focused on the specific types of tools they want to use, but the fact is the best tools get the job done efficiently at a price you can afford. Putting too many limitations and restrictions on the types of drones a vendor can use will only increase the price of their services, especially if certain types or brands are not readily available in the market. Instead, we recommend investing in strong and deep subject matter expertise. A vendor with utility Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) on their inspection team will efficiently help you solve your most complex challenges.
5. Make sure you’re paying for valuable, actionable insights
Most utilities who have a modernized grid network with digital technology will attest to not needing more data. In fact, we hear from many of our customers that their current systems don’t extract maximum value from existing datasets, which potentially leaves value on the table. It’s important to understand that capturing digital pictures of utility equipment is only one piece of a large, multi-faceted puzzle.
To put data processing into perspective, if someone showed you a picture of a random pole on your system, what is the propbability you could determine exactly which pole it is? Now, multiply that number by a range of five to ten images per pole, and then multiply that total by the number of poles on your system that were inspected. The amount of data adds up fast, and our guess is your staff does not have the time to reconcile each image with the respective asset. This process is best supported by sophisticated software that parses through all the images to organize and append them to the correct utility asset. But that’s not all.
The next and most crucial step is to perform the actual inspection. Depending on the work scope, the number of components and equipment will vary, but even at the bare minimum for a distribution feeder that’s a lot of poles, crossarms, braces, ground-wires, insulators, pins, nuts, tie-wires, transformers, fuses, switches, lightning arresters, and conductors to visually inspect. An experienced inspection company will understand what to look for in this mountain of data to extract the key insights, prioritize the findings, and deliver a report with actionable data.
6. Remember that transparency is a key trait of reputable companies
Reputable drone inspection companies are relatively easy to pick out from the competition. They can demonstrate their success and reputation with multiple references, including long-term contracts in the energy space and repeat customers. They will also be transparent with you. Regardless of the types of services you are seeking, whether it be a full-service inspection company or a software vendor to support in-house efforts, you will hear countless elevator pitches and value propositions spanning the entire spectrum. To help you pick out the reputable companies, a key trait will always be their transparency and willingness to share documentation that supports their claims.
Also, be sure to ask plenty of questions regarding the “autonomous” artificial intelligence (AI) software that allegedly replaces human inspectors. Confidence in a completely autonomous AI solution will have required massive amounts of data to train the AI models accounting for nearly every permutation, as well as years of human training, and a track record of out-competing SMEs.
To perform an inspection, entirely, without a human SME involved is a stretch. At this point in time, the best inspection solutions still require SMEs validating the AI findings through quality control and leveraging machine learning to continually train these systems.
How do we fit in?
Constellation Clearsight is not your average drone inspection company. We are backed by Constellation Energy Corporation, the nation’s largest producer of clean, carbon-free energy and a leading supplier of energy products and services to millions of homes, institutional customers, the public sector, community aggregations and businesses, including three fourths of Fortune 100 companies. This provides us with a balanced perspective of the energy industry, and unique insights from decades of complex problem-solving experience that help us innovate new solutions and create more value for our customers.
We proudly adopt Constellation’s world-renowned safety culture and management model, which helps us operate safely, deliver excellent customer experiences, and continually innovate the best solutions. Our field operators receive specialized hands-on training to operate around energized utility equipment and are evaluated routinely for skill progression milestones to advance their capabilities.
Our remote inspector team, comprised of utility SMEs, is aided by AI to efficiently perform thorough inspections. But we take it a step beyond simply identifying the good and the bad by giving you prioritized ratings for every finding and actionable reports. This means higher priority safety/reliability concerns are queued ahead of lower priority watch items. Our ranking methodology helps keep your work order process streamlined with minimal involvement from your personnel during the inspection process.
Choosing the right drone-based company for you might seem like a daunting task, but we trust you will find our insights above very helpful in your efforts. Consider putting Clearsight to the test! Let us prove that our solutions are the best and see why more than 100 utilities around the country already trust us with their inspections.