COVID-19: How drones are working to keep the lights on so people can telecommute

Drones, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are assisting critical infrastructure workers and keeping them safe.

COVID-19: How drones are working to keep the lights on
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TechRepublic's Karen Roby talks with Tyler Collins, VP of energy services for Precision Hawk, about the critical roles that drones are playing for utility companies. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Tyler Collins: Precision Hawk is a large drone company in the United States, and we have pilots out in the field, flying drones, collecting critical data for utility companies. We're helping those utility companies utilize that data in order to keep the power on, which is most important right now while most of us are working from home.

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Karen Roby: Talk about how the pilots and drones are truly assisting workers in the field.

Tyler Collins: When we look at critical infrastructure like electric utility lines, this is what delivers power to our houses and allows us to continue working every day. In order to keep the power on, we have to ensure that there's no damage to those utility poles, that trees are not getting too close to the wires, which can cause power outages, which we experience when storms come through, it can take hours or even in some cases, days to turn back on. When we're dealing with the issues that we're dealing with today with the virus and we have to work from home, it's even more critical that we identify those faults where those damages or potential things that could cause the power outages.

We're able to work with the utility workers by deploying our pilots in the field who can stay socially distant away from other people, especially the public, because they're able to fly a drone and really reach a far distance to inspect all of those utility poles down the line. Then we're able to take that data back in and work with the utility using machine learning and AI to help us efficiently identify potential problem areas, so that they can rapidly deploy their utility workers back out to preemptively fix those potential damages before they cause an outage and take out the power to the people in the neighborhoods.

Karen Roby: I didn't realize artificial intelligence and machine learning were at play here. Expand on that.

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Tyler Collins: If we look at the entire process of collecting and processing data to get answers for the utilities on the front end, we have to fly the drone, and the drone is a cutting edge piece of technology.

It's being driven by cutting edge software that automatically can fly that drone in a very safe way. You look at how utilities used to do these inspections in the past, and they would either use real helicopters with somebody looking out the window or they would have somebody climb a structure or climb a pole, which tends to be a bit dangerous. Technology on the front end, which can sense what's around the drone with the sensor that's on the drone, that's actually taking the photos of what we're inspecting, allows us to just increase the safety out of the gate, while collecting and digitizing the information around the infrastructure.

Then on the back end, it's important to get answers out of that data because we're collecting millions and millions of photos with the utilities that we work with. So we've had to develop machine learning and artificial intelligence that can help us automate that process to work through those images to one, just be a little bit more consistent, but be able to do that much more quickly. And by being able to do that more quickly and by collecting the data in a safer way, we're really changing the paradigm of how utilities are able to manage their infrastructure and really deliver power more reliably to the consumer.

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Karen Roby talked with Tyler Collins of Precision Hawk about the use of drones in electrical work. 

Image: Mackenzie Burke