Early survey of best practices for use of small unmanned aerial systems by the Electric Utility Industry

Richard M. Lusk William H. Monday

This best practices manual will provide the basics of UASs use and application for electric utility work, including the types of sensor systems that could be used by a utility, the UASs allowable work environment and limitations, and numerous references on how best to use this new tool in a safe and professional manner.  For the rest of the 83-page document:  https://goo.gl/98VHUY

This technical manual is about doing things safely. It isn’t so much a how-to guide as it is a collection of best practices from unmanned aerial system (UAS) operators from all over the world. The desired end state is to provide a touchstone for utility businesses, directors, managers, and operators that will inform them as they begin to strategize, plan, and incorporate this technology into day-to-day operations.

                       Applicable UASs come in a range of designs.

Unmanned aircraft have been around longer than anyone reading this preface. Previously the domain of military operations and some dedicated hobbyists, the technology has become commoditized. Miniaturization of computational components, mixed with ubiquitous GPS access and leveraged manufacturing economies of scale, has introduced relatively aerodynamically stable personal drones into everyday life.

The change that is upon us now is that the barrier for access to this technology is a few hundred dollars. A person with no training or experience can purchase one of these machines and fly it into the National Air Space the same day.

The following analogy is one I frequently use when discussing this three-dimensional risk with people who have little experience with aviation, airspace, or UASs. Let us say that someone goes into a big-box store and purchases a go-cart. Upon leaving the store, he starts the go-cart and immediately drives it across the parking lot; across the interstate, obeying no right of ways or traffic laws or signs; and across people’s property, at random. People respond, “That’s crazy. No one would do that!” However, that is exactly what many, and perhaps most, new drone “drivers” do.

Most people living in modern societies with automobiles and well-marked roads inherently understand that such behavior would pose an unacceptable risk to public safety, security, and privacy. However, knowledge of airspace and the risks associated with UAS flight is not as widespread as knowledge of the risks associated with manned terrestrial vehicles. At this early stage of small UAS use, there isn’t a widely shared mindset of norms and behaviors concerning drone use, much less expertise. Policies, regulations, and laws are still being written, while the technology improves and the ownership numbers increase. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration has set regulations for safe flying and certification requirements for commercial UAS operators. However, commercial use of small UASs is still in its infancy in the United States.

In this manual, what we hope to provide energy companies is a body of knowledge to inform their steps moving forward. Possible uses of the information may include as a baseline to start a UAS program or for developing a scoring rubric for vetting potential UAS contract operators. Not all of the topics will be relevant to every organization, location, or mission, but it is hoped that the manual will reduce or mitigate the risks associated with UAS activities—especially to our critical energy infrastructure.


This best practices manual is intended to help professionalize the safe and proper operation of UAS work. UAS technology has become a leader in advanced aeronautical technologies and is the next step for aviation in the United States and the world. The current and potential uses of UASs are massive and far-ranging.

UASs of all types have already been used in a wide variety of applications in practical ways such as aerial photography, agriculture, commercial delivery, entertainment, exploration, national defense, public safety, surveying, and thermography. Envisioned future applications will allow for advances in areas such as precision agriculture, energy sector remote sensing, national security and law enforcement reconnaissance, and utility analysis.

For this manual, we have specifically narrowed the range of interest to the training and operational application of UASs for work such as site surveying, critical infrastructure inspection, and power line inspection in the electric power industry while also addressing the future requirements of the technology for full integration into the National Airspace System (NAS). First, there needs to be some basic terminology clarification: UASs are also known as drones, or remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPASs), unmanned aircraft (UA), or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—all these terms are interchangeable, and for the purposes of this document, we will refer to the technology and the aircraft platform as “UAS.” (See Appendix A for a complete list of definitions related to UASs.)

UASs have become readily available to the public and private sectors, and their use has provided a new perspective to our world. For many electric utility industry observers, it’s not a matter of whether UASs will be integrated into the operational landscape, but when. The practical applications of UASs are poised to transform the electric power industry, along with several other industries, resulting in a critical need for worker safety, system reliability, and data collection and storage.

The prospect of obtaining an aerial view of transmission and distribution (T&D) lines, towers, and poles without deploying a line crew is very attractive to many utilities for the savings in money and time it offers.

After evaluating systems and processes that exist or that still need to be fully developed, this operating manual provides information on the best practices to be used by electric sector operators in the application of UASs in their work to professionalize and standardize the subject areas and important topics relevant to UASs use in the electric utility industry. This manual may serve to help develop standards enabling the energy utility industry to operate UASs for electric grid monitoring, and to further practical applications, energy exploration research, and infrastructure inspection.

T&D utilities have traditionally performed line inspections and maintenance, storm damage assessments, and vegetation management using line crews, manned aircraft, and third-party inspection service companies. Working on T&D systems is cost-intensive, difficult, and highly dangerous. UASs have demonstrated their wide effectiveness in other government and commercial applications and some electric power utilities have already begun using them on T&D infrastructure for collecting data in remote areas and over long distances in a more efficient and cost-effective manner than would be required of traditional, on-site manned inspections. It should be noted that the nation’s electric power grid and the T&D network that directly supports it are all a part of our nation’s critical infrastructure.

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