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Utilities using drones to speed hurricane disaster recovery

Electric utilities are starting to use drones to speed system restoration in the aftermath of major storms but are also looking for the Trump administration to make it easier to use the technology.

A number of energy companies in recent years have obtained special permits from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones over power lines and pipelines for routine inspections. But Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017 provided utilities new opportunities in Texas, Florida, Georgia and Puerto Rico to explore the extent to which drones could also aide in disaster response and recovery.

"This storm season we've hit more of an inflection point for storm recovery and response," said Chris Hickling, director of government relations at the Edison Electric Institute, an association of investor-owned electric utilities.

Utilities in Florida deployed drones in a limited capacity during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, but in 2017 utilities for the first time used mutual assistance programs to borrow and lend drones for disaster recovery. Drones can handle higher wind speeds and fit into smaller spaces than helicopters and can pass over terrain that is either temporarily or more generally inaccessible to vehicles.

Utilities used drones to assess what infrastructure was damaged, get a jump on crafting a restoration plan, and to ensure crews will be equipped with the right materials and are aware of the risks of a particular location, which ultimately means utilities can turn the lights back on faster, experts say.

Drone technology is "becoming an indispensable part of the entire business operation," Hickling said in a Feb. 22 interview. "It will be used for all the facets of the business, and disaster response is one where it has already shown its benefits."

The FAA in 2017 issued 325 emergency drone flight authorizations to utilities, insurance companies, media outlets and others during and in the aftermath of the three major U.S. hurricanes, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said in an email.

Southern Co. sent drones and certified operators via mutual assistance programs to help restoration efforts in Texas following Hurricane Harvey, which flooded Houston and nearby areas in the late summer.

"We flew drones in places that our crews found hard to reach ... so that once we did have access, our crews were able to very quickly go to work knowing exactly what they needed to restore power," Steve Greenley, CenterPoint Energy Inc.'s vice president of distribution power delivery, said during a Feb. 21 meeting of the U.S. Department of Energy's Electricity Advisory Committee in Virginia.

The drones also proved helpful in assuaging customer frustrations when their power was not restored as quickly as they had expected following Harvey, he said.

"The drone images paid huge dividends in this space too because we were really able to educate the customers on what our crews are seeing, why it may be difficult to perform some restoration," Greenley said. Once customers see those details, they calm down and may even come to your defense in social media, he said.

Hickling said in most cases utilities were able to get FAA emergency permits within 24 hours, but utility officials at the EAC meeting said clearing all the requirements was still difficult.

"It was a challenge," said William Ball, Southern Co. executive vice president and chief transmission officer. "We don't have 10 years of history here and so ... in the current structure there is a lot of individual hoops you have to jump through to get permission to fly. You don't get a pass just because there's been a flood."

Ball added, however, that Southern built on what it learned while helping to restore power in the Houston area to take steps to work with Georgia officials before Irma hit, which "reduced the lag time" for getting permits to use drones in no fly disaster zones following Irma. The strong winds of Irma toppled transmission lines and other energy infrastructure in Florida and Georgia.

The energy sector is pressing FAA to do more to enable drone usage

EEI wants FAA to make drones part of mutual assistance "just the way that we send line workers and bucket trucks through each of those systems," Hickling said. And EEI wants FAA to issue additional emergency guidelines such as safety requirements for flying drones out of the line of sight, which FAA is required to do under an FAA authorization bill enacted in 2016.

But according to an email from FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown, the FAA believes it has already satisfied its statutory requirements.

The FAA in November at President Donald Trump's bidding launched a three-year pilot program aimed at finding more options for integrating drones into American airspace. Pursuant to the program the FAA will pick at least five local, state and tribal governments to partner with the private sector to decide when and where drones can safely be used for such things as disaster response, delivering packages, examining infrastructure such as bridges, or even helping farmers inspect their crops.

More than a dozen energy companies have officially indicated they are interested in participating in the pilot program, including PPL Electric Utilities Corp., Xcel Energy Inc., Southern California Gas Co., San Diego Gas & Electric Co., Avangrid Inc., Arizona Public Service Co., PNM Resources Inc., Louisville Gas and Electric Co., Duke Energy Corp., PECO Corp. and CPS Energy.

The FAA expects to sign memorandums of agreement with its pilot program picks in May.