We know drones are small, unmanned aircraft that have been used primarily for military purposes but are now being studied for a variety of commercial uses. Drones are also a burgeoning hobby of aviation enthusiasts around the world.
I admit I am intrigued by the idea of drones for commercial use. Can you imagine having a package delivered right to your doorstep by a drone instead of a delivery driver, as Amazon would have us believe? Or could you imagine being a rancher checking on the location of his herd in the winter from the warmth of his barn?
Like many people, I am concerned about the safety and security of drone use — not to mention the privacy issues. There have already been more than two dozen instances of near misses between drones and commercial aircraft. Drones, especially large ones, interacting in close proximity to people could be a recipe for disaster. The utility industry, too, has mixed feelings about drones.
NPPD has over 5,200 miles of transmission line across the state of Nebraska, all of which must be regularly inspected to make sure it remains in a safe and operable condition. This is no small task, considering some of these transmission lines and their associated structures are more than a hundred feet off the ground. NPPD has used every method – from the old fashioned hands-on inspection, to bucket trucks, to helicopters – to inspect lines. The use of drones equipped with cameras would be an incredibly efficient and safe way to inspect power lines, and it has already been commercially tested. Drones would change the way power line inspection occurs, on most accounts, for the better.
The use of drones equipped with cameras would be an incredibly efficient and safe way to inspect power lines, and it has already been commercially tested.
Just in the last few months, one of NPPD’s contractors used a specialized drone to inspect conditions and work done inside one of Gerald Gentleman Station’s huge boilers. The drone could easily enter the very hot boiler and provide excellent visuals without an employee having to do more than steer with a finger. Clearly, the potential to use drones in the utility business is limitless!
But drones also pose a potential threat to utility security. A drone with a camera flying without authorization over a power plant or transmission structures could be gathering information on the vulnerabilities of those structures, and that information could be used for harm. Even the recreational drone owner just out for an afternoon flight can pose a problem to utility security. What if she decides to fly her drone too close to the local nuclear power plant, a place where security is sacrosanct? Her drone would be considered a hostile intruder and shot down by the armed guards at the plant — guards who must act without considering the motivation behind the drone.
In February, the Federal Aviation Administration released a proposed rule on drones, giving the public an opportunity to comment. The utility industry will no doubt have many comments to contribute. Once the rule becomes final sometime in 2017, realtors, TV producers, farmers, bridge inspectors and, yes, power line technicians could be among those authorized to use drones in their work.
I had the opportunity recently to fly a small hobby drone, and it was an amazing experience. It gave me a firsthand appreciation for how dangerous, and yet how completely cool, drones can be. It seems drones are here to stay, and their uses will increase in the future. This is a technology that must be used carefully and respected. Spiderman’s Uncle Ben said it best: with great power comes great responsibility.