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Power Companies Using Drones to Monitor Power Lines and Natural Gas Pipes

Power Companies Using Drones to Monitor Power Lines and Natural Gas Pipes


Jonathan Evans began his professional career as a pilot for the United States Army with the 236th Medical Company in Landstuhl, Germany. After a six year term with the army, he moved to Oregon where he began working as a medical pilot while simultaneously getting an MBA through the GI Bill at the University of Oregon. Being influenced by his studies and his work with the Life Flight Network Jonathan said, “I became interested in what a business could accomplish with a fleet of networked drones.” By 2012 Jonathan had founded Skyward, a company that provides drone operators a means of tracking all flights safely and efficiently.

“The biggest hurdle in the commercial UAS market is that the FAA and other regulators of the world ultimately need to trust a new system of aviation — one that doesn’t rely on operators visually seeing one another,” Johnathan said. “In order to go beyond line of sight, we have to show regulators that the same level of safety is provided for drone operations as in manned aviation — that drones can avoid other aircraft to the same degree that a helicopter pilot can with a Robinson R44.” Skyward uses a platform that allows a business to monitor a single drone, or a fleet of them, all at one time. The drones are connected to a network that gives those on the ground total awareness of what is going on in the sky, even if the drones are spread out at multiple locations.

In February of 2017, Skyward was purchased by Verizon, allowing them to reach a much broader market space. “Drones are becoming an essential tool for improving business processes at large companies, but scalability has been a challenge,” Jonathan said. “Skyward’s drone operations management platform combined with Verizon’s network, reliability, scale, and expertise in delivering enterprise solutions will allow organizations to efficiently and safely scale drones across multiple divisions and hundreds of use cases.” Today Skyward is helping manage drone operations for companies large and small across the country. One such company, Southern Company, has found that with the help of Skyward they are able to serve their customers better than ever.

Southern Company is a power and energy company with over 9 million customers spread out over 7 US states. They operate around 200,000 miles of power lines and more than 80,00 miles of natural gas pipelines. Maintaining this massive network is time consuming, costly, and dangerous. Heavy rains, high and low temperatures, strong wind, and vegetation overgrowth are just some of the factors that can interfere with power transmissions. With the use of drones, power providers like Southern Company can ensure that all lines are in safe working order. An inspection job that would have taken a week to finish manually, and could put human lives at risk, can now safely be done in a few days. But being able to monitor a fleet of drones was too complicated.

Once Skyward, powered by the Verizon network, stepped in Southern Company could cohesively have drone flights happening at multiple sites, even in different states. Any business looking to utilize drones needs to meet FAA compliance. Recently, the FAA has made it much simpler for companies like Southern to use drones with the introduction of LAANC (Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability). With LAANC drone pilots can get the necessary flight approval for lower altitude operations almost instantly. However, these flights still need to be monitored to keep the airspace safe. “Tracking our data, knowing where our pilots are, and deconflicting our airspace are all really important during disasters when we have helicopters flying our lines and rescue helicopters doing operations,” says Southern’s Chief UAS Pilot Corey Hitchcock. “Skyward InFlight lets the company see where our manned and unmanned aircraft are and where operators are, so those assets can be kept apart and allowed to operate safely inside the National Airspace System.”

With the drones, data that Southern used to have to collect and compile manually is done automatically now. Information on the power grids, individual inspections, flight logs, everything is seamlessly compiled. After the announcement of the merger between Skyward and Verizon, Skyward released a statement the read, “We started Skyward four years ago with a dream of bringing commercial drone operators the tools they need to safely access the sky. Now, people in over 40 countries rely on Skyward to power drone programs in industries like construction, industrial inspection, media, insurance, real estate, mining, precision agriculture, and more. Skyward’s drone operations management platform combined with Verizon’s network, reliability, trusted brand, and expertise in building enterprise solutions will help us deliver the solutions our customers need faster than ever before…Our mission will stay the same: to power safe, efficient commercial drone operations so you can maximize the value that drones bring to your business.”

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