Drone services critical to safer, more economical utility inspections, says PrecisionHawk


The difficulties of maintaining critical infrastructure are well known — millions of miles of cabling, pipelines, and railways to inspect, maintain, and repair, in all kinds of weather, in environments that are hazardous for humans. Even as pandemic restrictions begin to relax, spiking demand and labor shortages continue to affect the energy and utilities sectors. Drone services from companies such as PrecisionHawk are growing rapidly to help businesses.

Work-related fatalities in the oil and gas extraction industry rose 27.6% between 2003 and 2013, reported the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). That included a total 1,189 fatal injuries, more than half of which occurred at companies that service wells, said the CDC.

Drone providers have faced challenges such as having to pivot from consumer to commercial applications, the failure of companies such as 3D Robotics and Airware, trade conflict between the U.S. and China, and a lack of unified traffic management, noted ABI Research. However, the market for small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) will grow to $101 billion in revenue across sectors by 2030, ABI said.

More specifically, commercial spending on aerial drones in 2020 will be led by utilities at $1.9 billion, construction at $1.4 billion, and discrete manufacturing and resource enterprises at $1.2 billion each, according to IDC. The analyst firm predicted that spending by the resource industry and government will increase significantly in the coming year.

A dip in demand from the COVID-19 pandemic should not affect long-term commercial growth, noted Stratview Research. Similarly, Markets and Markets predicted the drone services market to grow from $4.4 billion in 2019 to $63.6 billion in 2025.

PrecisionHawk, a 2019 RBR50 company, named a new CEO in January and raised $32 million in Series E funding last December.

Drone services safer, more competitive than helicopters

By automating some operations around wells, oil and gas companies can improve safety by reducing the amount of time people spend in dangerous areas, said PrecisionHawk, which was founded in 2010. In addition, technicians can spend more of their time focusing on high value-added inspections or maintenance. This may not directly reduce costs, but it can affect uptime and overall revenue, according to the Raleigh, N.C.-based company.

“Three years ago, we found that the oil and gas industry was interested in using drones,” said Pat Lohman, vice president of energy at PrecisionHawk. “At that time, it was only 5% of our business, which was mostly agriculture. We’ve watched demand grow, and it now accounts for about 70% of our business.”

Another major benefit of drone services is that they cost much less than helicopter flights, so drone inspections can be conducted more frequently and closer to relevant sites and structures, said PrecisionHawk. The cost of drone-based inspection is “extremely competitive with the helicopters” while significantly reducing the risk of fatal accidents, stated one of the five largest gas and electric utility companies in the U.S. by market value.

“With so many injuries and deaths in oil and gas and critical infrastructure, improving safety is most important,” Lohman told The Robot Report. “We’ve seen heavy demand for helping people avoid having to walk onto a well pad or to climb a tower.”

Helicopter pilots must try to fly the same altitude and route over a pipeline or well pad, but an autonomous drone can be pre-programmed to precisely follow the same navigation points each time. Route and height are necessary for collecting consistent imagery, noted PrecisionHawk.

As the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration refines policies on beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations, autonomous drone services should become even more competitive, said the company. BVLOS inspections could cost between $200 and $300 per mile, in comparison with helicopter flights that cost an average of $1,200 to $1,600 per mile, estimated utility firm Xcel Energy Inc.


Drone data as a service

The ultimate value of drone services is not in the aerial robots but in the data they collect for analysis, PrecisionHawk said. SUASes can collect structured data that can be aggregated with larger structured data sets and then transmitted directly via application programming interfaces (APIs) to a work-management system.

Not only can mobile sensor platforms gather data more quickly from asset inspections, but drones and robots can minimize points of human intervention and produce higher-quality data. “Getting better data is in high demand for industries,” said Lohman.

Last year, PrecisionHawk established the Unmanned Aerial Intelligence Technology Center of Excellence (UAS COE) to help government agencies conduct cybersecurity risk assessments so they could use more cost-effective and efficient drone services.

PrecisionHawk said its drone services eliminate the need for oil and gas companies to own or maintain aerial equipment, train and keep a pilot on staff, or hire data analysts to get useful insights.

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