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Energy & Sustainability

Good News for Energy Industry: Drones Get the Green Light

Peter Lougee

Energy Columnist, 1776

Ever since the public became aware that the United States military began using unmanned aerial vehicles—drones—the chatter over potential commercial- and private-sector applications of the technology began in earnest. Yet, there have always been limitations on drones’ use. Today, some of those restrictions have been lifted and potential floodgate has opened that could benefit drone- and energy-minded startups.

As CNN reports, the Federal Aviation Administration has proposed a rule that would allow a variety of commercial applications for drones, at heights of up to 500 feet and at speeds up to 100 miles per hour. Fortune adds the insight that the proposed rule marks the first time that the FAA has laid out the ground work for drone approvals outside Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which until now had served as the only way to gain approval to operate UAV systems. Although it is important to note that the current rule is not finalized and will be open for public comment before it becomes binding, this is a significant step forward for the FAA.

The potential uses of drones to the commercial sector are myriad. One sector in which they have significant potential, however, is the energy market. In short, the energy sector has a lot of work that is “dangerous and dirty” for humans to perform, and the more of that work that could be inspected by drones instead, the better. Public Source writes that utility companies currently “perform safety checks on pipelines by foot patrols and expensive helicopter fly-over inspections.” In one of the more obvious applications of UAV technology, a relatively inexpensive drone flight to perform such inspections could be of great interest to large and small companies alike. The increasing diversification of the grid, with renewables interconnecting with the traditional domestic energy infrastructure, creates even more opportunities.

Energy utilities are expressing interest in drone use as well. ComEd, the largest utility in the Midwest, already received approval to operate drones in February 2015, according to EnergyWire. With this approval, ComEd becomes the first energy utility company to gain approval for drone use; it intends to use UAV systems to identify and pinpoint storm damage to its 11,400 square miles of infrastructure. Perhaps anticipating formal rule adoption, the FAA also has granted approvals for drone operations to San Diego Gas & Electric, Southern Co., and NextEra Energy, Inc.—all within the past month.

Indeed, The New York Times reports that small-scale drone operations have already been underway to this effect. Drones from startup company Skycatch have begun “monitoring power lines, inspecting oil and gas pipelines” for traditional utility companies, as well as “checking wind turbines for defects and pinpointing malfunctioning solar panels” for green energy companies such as First Solar and SolarCity.

Drones can gather information better than human inspectors can in many ways, such as identifying cracks in individual wind turbine blades—a task that would otherwise be a timely, costly and dangerous undertaking for a human worker. Less obviously, SolarCity is looking to drones to even perform some routine maintenance on panel arrays, as the technology for both drones and panels becomes cheaper and more efficient.

As Wired wrote in 2014, Skycatch aims to be the “Uber for drone pilots,” offering a platform “(that) enables companies [to] find and hire unmanned aerial vehicles” for everything from mapping and surveying to inspections of pipelines. The aim of startups like Skycatch is to take advantage of the fact that companies both big and small do not want to spend thousands of dollars on individual drones when they could use an on-demand service for basic drone work. What sets Skycatch further apart from the competition is that they also manufacture their own drones, which the company leases to third parties via its on-demand software.

As the FAA begins the formal rule-finalization process that will govern drone use in the commercial sphere, a unique opportunity in the energy sector will present itself to enterprising startups. This, combined with the overall expected market demand for drones more broadly represents a potentially lucrative new market space, of which specialized startups can take advantage.

Peter Lougee

Energy Columnist, 1776

Peter is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer with a Master's Degree in Public Policy from American University. In addition to startups, Peter likes coffee, books and whiskey.