Our series on drones, known formally as “unmanned aircraft systems” or “UAS,” addresses the growing use of drones in numerous industries across the United States. Many sectors in the United States have embraced drones due to their ability to significantly reduce costs, execute a variety of tasks traditionally performed by human labor, access places that humans and larger aircraft are incapable of reaching, and provide enhanced reliability and accuracy of data. Furthermore, commercial drone use in the U.S. is expected to become more prevalent as federal government decision-makers and industry stakeholders work together to encourage drone use in commercial operations and to foster the integration of drones into the nation’s airspace.

Here’s the second installment of our series, which focuses on the rapidly increasing integration of drones into the energy, oil and gas, utilities and telecommunications industries.

Energy/Oil & Gas/Utilities

Stakeholders in the energy industry are increasingly utilizing drones to achieve significant cost savings, enhanced safety, higher energy yields, increased inspection speed and frequency and overall improved productivity. A number of the industry’s subsectors (e.g., oil and gas, electric, nuclear and renewables) are embracing UAS technology for a diverse range of functions, including:

  • Collecting data and images for purposes of mapping, monitoring and site development construction
  • Detecting oil and gas leaks
  • Enhancing storm restoration measures
  • Identifying and assessing damage to oil rigs and pipelines
  • Locating right-of-way encroachments, such as vegetation and construction
  • Inspecting power lines, solar panels, substations, transmission towers and wind turbines
  • Monitoring changes in condition through the use of automatic flight routines
  • Preventing damage and potential outages

End users in other utility sectors, such as the water and wastewater utility industries, can also use drones for many of these tasks, including leak detection, mapping, monitoring, pipeline inspection, and storm restoration.

Telecommunications

End users in the telecommunications industry are utilizing drones for:

  • Tower inspections
  • Network testing
  • Aerial base stations and relay stations

Concerning tower inspections, drones can:

  • Identify biological or structural hazards and obstacles that degrade radio signals
  • Access hard-to-reach areas while avoiding guy wires and electromagnetic fields
  • Create 3D models
  • Perform inspections and make repairs significantly faster — and at a lesser cost — than human labor

Regarding network testing, drones are able to more quickly and less expensively test for connection speed, signal strength, latency and interference (including over large terrains) than human workers.

Finally, drones can serve as both aerial base stations and relay stations, providing residents in rural areas with Internet access and establishing short-term solutions until permanent solutions are available. After all, drones, which can essentially be “parked” in the air, can be:

  • Deployed on demand
  • Flown in any location
  • Repositioned to boost coverage, spectral efficiency and user quality experience

While commercial drone operation in the United States continues to advance, obstacles remain that prohibit the commercial drone industry from reaching its full potential.

For example, public perception of drones, especially in areas of the country where commercial drone use has not gained sufficient exposure, needs to be modified so that the public will understand the numerous benefits drones can provide to various industries rather than viewing drones as voyeuristic devices that promote trespassing and invasions of privacy.

In addition, state and local government decision-makers across the country will need to work with federal government leaders and industry stakeholders to facilitate commercial drone operations and remove barriers that threaten to curtail the progression of the industry.