Pioneer Electric Looks Into Drone Usage

David Norton, communications specialist, performs a preflight inspection before the drone takes flight.

The morning air waits as communications specialist David Norton begins his preflight inspection. He spins each of the rotary propellers, checks the battery and scans the horizon. Happy, he takes a breath, and before he knows it he’s sky bound. Well, kind of. From below, he stands and watches the white drone settle and hover in the Kansas sky. Norton along with Ross Riley, operations supervisor; Ryan Wilken, system administrator/supervisor; and Drew Waechter, communications specialist, received their remote pilot licenses and commercial certification to fly drones for the cooperative.

The four completed their drone flight certification by attending classes in Salina and passing a certification exam. They all learned safety and aviation regulations and the fundamentals of reading air sectional charts, and how to make sound decisions to ensure a safe flight.

“We learned quite a bit,” said Norton. “You have to take into consideration a lot of different factors before you start flying. It changes your perspective and gets you excited to see how this will change the way we are able to showcase our cooperative to members.”

The use of these unmanned aircraft is becoming more common within the electric utility industry, offering an “eye-in-the-sky” during restoration, construction and communication projects. Some larger utilities have begun using drones to assist in the mapping and maintenance of distribution and transmission-based lines. However, with a decrease in price, increased stability and improved accessibility, more rural cooperatives have access to drone technology.

“The technology on these (drones) is pretty awesome,” said Riley. “Having the capability to check damaged infrastructure, identify hot spots in a substation and scope out damages after a storm will allow us to identify potential issues before they become a problem. I’m interested to see how this will impact the way we work the lines.”

While the use of drones within the cooperative is still in its infancy, Pioneer hopes their use will open the door to improving service to members. At this time, Pioneer plans to use drones in upcoming operations and communications projects.