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Welcome to the Drone Age

Oil, gas, engineering, construction use UAVs to reach the unreachable


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One of Alaska Aerial Media's drones staged on Matanuska Glacier during a recent music video shoot for Korean Pop Star, Taeyang.

Image courtesy of Alaska Aerial Media

The general public may consider drones a fun (if somewhat expensive) hobby but what many may not know is that these commercial and government flying robots are revolutionizing the way Alaska companies and state and federal entities conduct business, as manpower is increasingly replaced by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

By all indicators, the use of drones is not a passing phase. It’s expected that nearly every industry either already is using drones or will be impacted by the use of drones in the near future, especially in Alaska where UAVs are used to reach the previously unreachable.

 

Photo by Judy Patrick

Alaska Aerial Media Crew: (from left to right) Tyler Currier (Founding Partner), Nick Morrison (Partner & Chief Pilot), Beau Bivins (Founding Partner) and Ryan Marlow (Founding Partner). 

“If it’s dirty, dull, or dangerous… use unmanned aircraft.”

The petroleum, engineering, construction, and filmmaking industries, along with public utilities and government entities, are some of the first industries to realize the revolutionary cost-saving benefits of drone technology, and of course, there is the fact that there is virtually no limit to the potential uses for drones. Already they can be seen hovering over real estate lots, golf courses, major events, and farms. They are used for security and search and rescue missions, as well as to fly emergency food or lifesaving medicine and supplies to disaster zones or extremely remote parts of the world.

On an even larger scale, early this year the US Patent and Trademark Office granted Amazon a patent allowing the company to launch Prime Air, a delivery system that delivers packages to customers in thirty minutes or less using UAVs. In addition to improving customer service for millions of customers, Amazon says it also increases the overall safety and efficiency of its transportation system.

“If you think about it, the great number of different ways you can use drones, from doing mapping and surveying, to mammal monitoring, package delivery, and agricultural spraying, means that many different businesses see ways to improve safety for their employees, reach more customers, reduce costs, and other benefits from the technology,” Catherine Cahill, director of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration (ACUASI) says.

In other words: “If it’s dirty, dull, or dangerous, that’s when to use unmanned aircraft,” she says, a rule of thumb that applies to most of Alaska’s largest industries.

“The use of drone technology for commercial purposes has only recently become legal and cheap enough that businesses can apply it to their challenges. The regulatory environment has evolved very quickly under pressure from businesses desiring to use the technology,” Cahill says.

As part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, ACUASI has been the University of Alaska’s Center of Excellence for unmanned aircraft since 2012, leading an FAA test site, which allows commercial, unmanned operators to test and evaluate systems so they can be safely integrated into manned airspace. Prior to the inception of such test sites, there was no route for commercial testing of the systems.

“There has been an explosion in the number of businesses using this technology and a constant stream of new applications being tried—the drones have changed how business is being done,” Cahill says. “As the regulations and technology continue to advance at this breakneck pace, we expect more businesses to be able to use drones to advance their business.”

Drone technology is constantly evolving, but most of the miniature, pilotless aircraft possess similar characteristics and operating systems such as an aerodynamic design, light composite materials, circuit boards, chipsets, and software, the brain of the UAV. UAVs are controlled by remote systems or a ground cockpit. They come in a wide variety of sizes and can be equipped with a range of technological options such as infrared cameras. Before flight, they are programmed to complete a specific set of tasks on a specific flight path.

Image courtesy of Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities

A drone took this photo of the Susitna River in 2017; survey crews measure known points on the Susitna River Bridge to monitor it for stability. Each crew operates one drone to aerially map and document the project. 

UAVs were initially associated with the military until the commercial world saw how valuable drones could be to their daily operations. The first general-use drone was similar to the de Havilland DH82V “Queen Bee” airplane, outfitted with a radio and back seat controls. The term “drone” comes from this association.

Commercial drone sales are expected to increase 51 percent by 2021, exceeding the consumer drone sector in both shipments and revenues, according to the Bard Center for the Study of Drones, a research institute that examines the opportunities and challenges presented by unmanned systems technologies in the military and civilian spheres.

Recent changes to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations contributed to the measurable increase in drone activity over the past year or so. Previously, the FAA required drone pilots to undergo the same amount of training as pilots who fly manned aircraft, an expensive and arduous process requiring up to forty hours of flight time. Now, drone pilots must pass a comparatively simple test that costs $150, making it more accessible for the public to operate commercial drones. It is expected that the number of licensed drone operators will surpass the number of licensed private pilots (currently about 171,000) within a year.

Quite simply, this means that more people will be able to do it, says Beau Bivins, co-founder of Anchorage-based Alaska Aerial Media (AAM), which specializes in aerial surveying and mapping and inspecting commercial infrastructure associated with some of Alaska’s largest industries such as petroleum and mining.

When Bivins and his partners started the business three years ago, clients hired them to capture commercial aerial videography for filmmakers and reality television in Alaska. Although they still work in that industry occasionally, he says they recognized early on where the technology and regulations were heading, and last year shifted into surveying and inspection. Now, AAM is preparing for the next advancement in commercial drone technology that will accelerate the industry: the growth of artificial intelligence capabilities and machine learning—similar to the AI technology used to develop driverless cars.

Although not every company will have the capability to operate its own drones, many will as technology becomes ever more automated. Troy Hicks, a land surveyor for the Northern Region of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Facilities (AKDOTPF), started adding remote sensing information to land surveys last year, using both manned aircraft and drones, which substantially reduce the margin of error. By purchasing their own inexpensive consumer drones for $1,800 each and having survey-build crews become FAA-licensed UAV pilots, the department is realizing about a 10 percent savings on jobs that range in price from $30,000 to $120,000. Mistakes cost a lot more than drone imagery, Hicks says, which not only saves the time and money needed to deploy surveyors, it also helps AKDOTPF make more accurate decisions with the drafting and survey data they collect. Crews capture roughly 95 percent of the data needed and supplement that with traditional surveying methods.

 

Photo by John Dibbs

 Alaska Aerial Media was the first commercial drone company to operate in coordination with a national airshow: Arctic Thunder, 2016. 

FAA Out to Balance Consumer Safety, Privacy with Increasing Innovation

A critical challenge facing the industry is the FAA’s difficultly keeping regulations in line with increasingly complex technology and operations. The organization must find the right balance between encouraging innovation while still maintaining public safety and privacy. This includes allowing pilots to fly long range, instead of being limited by the visual line-of-sight between the drone pilot and the subject. Although still in the early planning stages, ultimately, the FAA and Congress expect unmanned aircraft to be fully integrated into the airspace, with regulations for any type of operation, including long distance operations beyond the line of sight.

Another big challenge having to do with drone regulation is enforcement. The primary problem is that violations are difficult to catch because even if the drone is seen operating outside the law, it is almost impossible to also see the drone operator or to know for what the drone is being used. Manned aircraft are marked with highly-visible registration numbers. And, while all commercial drones are required to possess registration numbers, they often cannot be seen by the naked eye.

Alyeska Pipeline, responsible for monitoring the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline system, is one example of an enterprise that would benefit from regulations allowing long-range drone surveillance in remote areas, Sheyna Wisdom, Fairweather Science general manager says.

Image courtesy of Alaska Aerial Media

Alaska Aerial Media's UAV staged on the North Slope about to complete a LiDAR acquisition flight. 

Fairweather Science provides scientific support, logistics, and permitting for the oil industry and the university, and works with various specialty firms, including AAM, to gather data using drones. Although she cannot identify all of Fairweather Science’s clients for confidentiality reasons, offshore projects include identifying ice that could block travel lanes, and marine mammal scouting for whales and walrus to avoid disturbing them. Last year, Fairweather Science relied on the cutting-edge Flexrotor aerial system, which operates over oceans and remote areas, to help safely retrieve large anchors in the Arctic on behalf of Shell.

Safety and cost cutting are the two biggest benefits of drone use, Wisdom says.

Earlier this year, AAM used drones to take pictures of drilling platform legs in the dangerous waters of Cook Inlet to ensure the aging infrastructure is maintaining its integrity. They captured all the images they needed in four days, increasing efficiency and reducing the risk to divers who would otherwise dive off the platform while attached to a bungee-type cord to make repairs. Another oil industry client worked with Fairweather Science and AAM to collect various types of aerial imagery for a maintenance project, without having to shut down facilities to perform the survey.

 

Municipal Light & Power Using Drones Streamline Operations

Municipal Light & Power (ML&P), the city-owned electric utility for Anchorage and the surrounding twenty-square-mile area, services about 30,000 customers in the residential, commercial, industrial, university, medical, and military sectors. In addition to its own water, gas, generation, transmission, and distribution, ML&P is the south-end controller of the single Intertie transmission line that runs from Anchorage to Fairbanks and sells utilities to other Railbelt utilities.

As part of recent efforts to refine workflow processes, in the past year ML&P has been replacing the use of traditional air imagery from manned aircraft, and has been working with AAM to more cost effectively capture data, especially over large areas, which can be cost prohibitive. Because drones fly at low altitudes and at slow speed, they are also able to produce higher resolution images than typical surveying equipment.

Since completing four major above- and below-ground projects, including one this past fall, the utility estimates it has conservatively saved at least 50 percent in surveying costs, Jake Maxwell, ML&P chief surveyor says. It is currently planning other surveying projects using UAV technology for 2018 and 2019.

Aside from the lower cost of securing high-resolution drone imagery, a major advantage of this method, Maxwell says, is that large underground projects can be surveyed in the fall, and designed during the winter months, so milder spring and summer months can be dedicated to making improvements and repairs in the field. As an additional bonus, drones typically collect more data than is needed for a given project, which can be used for future planning or if the project scope should increase.

“I [foresee] more utilities following our lead as this technology reshapes surveying,” Maxwell says, looking ahead. “UAV is redefining the industry.”

 

 

Heidi Bohi is a freelance writer who has been writing about Alaska since 1988.

 

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