Welcome! The Alabama Rural Electric Association of Cooperatives (AREA) is a member-owned federation of 22 electric distribution cooperatives.

Co-ops curious about drones, but issue needs more study

Operating and engineering personnel at our co-ops came to a meeting at AREA last month to assist Auburn University in writing a curriculum for specialized courses dealing with unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones.

We also wanted to see who among our electric cooperatives is interested in drones. There is plenty of interest, but the future of drone use in our industry is far from clear.

Representatives from enrGies Inc. of Huntsville, which provides UAS services and is under contract with Auburn, talked with co-op personnel and representatives from Alabama Power and Southern Company at the meeting.

Auburn has America’s first FAA-approved Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight School. The meeting at AREA was intended to help enrGies Inc. write a curriculum for Auburn, which hopes to develop specialized UAS courses for conducting inspections of electrical distribution infrastructure. Auburn and enrGies Inc. need the help of co-ops to understand how the UAS could help our industry; they also need our technical expertise to know, for example, a safe distance for a drone to fly in relation to power lines.

Many of our co-ops have been eager to learn about the drones’ potential. NRECA has about a dozen people looking at the issues ranging from regulations to insurance, according to ECT.coop.

The potential is exciting: A drone with a camera could fly over transmission or distribution lines in the aftermath of a natural disaster to record damage, a survey that might take hours or days on the ground. A drone could help survey rights-of-way, or even help with vegetation management.

But regulations and cost are very real concerns. A drone that was on display at the AREA meeting costs $35,000; as with anything, there is maintenance, as well as necessary insurance.

Then there are the feds. To fly a drone, co-ops would have to apply to the FAA for an exemption, which is a months-long process. And a drone operator is required to have a pilot’s license. And regulations require two people to fly a drone – one to operate it and one to follow it and keep it in sight. If someone is required to keep the drone in sight, does that diminish a drone’s value for use after a storm, when trees and structures are down and rights-of-way potentially blocked?

Though co-ops routinely handle sensitive information, there will no doubt be issues with education among co-op members. Some will want to know what kind of information the co-op is gathering with a drone, and how that information will be used.

At the AREA meeting, several co-ops wanted to know about hiring a drone contractor, an alternative to investing in the technology themselves. While that’s a possibility, co-ops are urged to be cautious. Such contractors should understand the hazards of our industry.

An NRECA official said the FAA is working to improve the process of applying for an exemption. At the NRECA annual meeting, voting delegates approved a resolution calling for the association to pursue legislation and monitor FAA rules.

AREA will actively monitor the emerging issues with UAS, and we want to be on the forefront of any technology that could help our co-ops. But for now, co-ops are wise to be cautious before entering into any contracts or investing in technology.