We’ve detailed how the value associated with drone technology is typically about performing tasks in faster, cheaper or safer ways, but enabling that value means something very specific to organizations like Southern Company, which supports energy needs across three states. They’ve created an especially unique drone program in the utility space that continues to reside at the cutting edge of the technology, which recent headlines associated with the company securing a BVLOS waiver for remote UAS operations further establishes. 

While there will soon be much more news related to how this waiver is being utilized, their work with drones in GPS-denied environments for internal inspections is making a major difference. The value associated with using UAVs in these situations has been quantified in terms of saving time and reducing costs but the safety impact is what resonates most with the people who are performing inspection tasks on a daily basis.

“The value they add just in terms of safety is incalculable because they’re keeping workers out of hazardous environments,” said Daniel W. Humphries, a UAS Senior Pilot at Southern Company Aerial Services. “It’s really our biggest and most exciting work in the nuclear environment. Not only are we taking inspectors off scaffolds, but we’re doing those actual inspections faster without having to build or take down all of that infrastructure.”

Scaffolding in these environments can sometimes mean climbing up to 80 feet and spending inspection time at various heights. Just setting up and taking down all that scaffolding can make an inspection a four- or five-day process. With a drone, that same inspection can be done in an afternoon.

The bottom-line value of the technology in terms of time saved can be calculated in multiple ways, but the safety impact that it enables in these environments is really where Southern Company is really seeing the value. But what does that difference in safety look like for the people that need to use and integrate this technology into their established processes?  

“In nuclear, we use a term called ALARA, which stands for as low as reasonably achievable,” explained Mathew Spurlock, a UAS Pilot and Safety Coordinator at Southern Company. “We use that when we talk about dose rate exposure because we want to keep someone’s dose rate exposure as low as possible. Once you hit your limit, that’s it. Then they're not allowed in that environment, again, for a full calendar year. So if we can keep people from even entering that environment, and being exposed to nuclear radiation at all, then we’re better off for both safety and efficiency reasons.”

Using drones in these GPS-denied environments makes a practical difference with safety, as there’s a dollar amount associated with every dose, just as there is with the risk inherent in any inspection where someone either isn’t standing on the ground or is placing themselves in an unstable environment. 

Given how drone technology has proven to create this kind of quantifiable and incalculable value, the push to adopt these solutions or move forward is stronger than ever. However, for many organizations, that endeavor clashes with established processes. Proving the value of drones means demonstrating that the technology is likely a better option than what has been done in the past, which can be a process. Thankfully, the benefits of the effort can be as powerful as they are revealing.

“For me, getting people to understand what kind of opportunities we can create is really about being able to let go of the traditional methods,” Humphries told Commercial UAV News. “To this day, we have people that are hesitant to get away from certain legacy methods that include setting up and climbing all of that scaffolding. We can prove the value which makes it easier for folks to adopt and accept but the exciting part is when someone has the technology in their hands and we see the light bulbs go off in their heads. They’ll say something like, ‘can we try that?’ and I get to say, ‘absolutely,’ which is incredible.” 

That sort of conversation leads to quantifiable value, as Humphries mentioned a recently planned three-day inspection used a drone to help realize a savings of over $60K. With a drone, the team performed the same type of inspection that would otherwise have taken a few days in a matter of hours. For certain utility applications like the ones Southern Company is focused on, that difference can also mean turning what could have been a four-day power outage into something much less.

How utility stakeholders and anyone else looking to launch a drone program can enable similar value will always depend on the specifics, but the value associated with using drones in GPS-denied environments can be measured. However, the real value goes beyond the bottom line. 

“You hate to put a number on safety, but you could come up with an actual dollar amount,” Spurlock said. “For us, that would be in terms of the actual and potential costs associated with every dose exposure, in terms of how that impacts who can or can’t go into those environments, and then what additional resources we might need when we’ve gone over the limit. But the safety case is so widely understood that for us it’s just a given.”

Stay tuned for much more info about Southern Company’s use of drones in GPS-denied environments as well as an update around their use of dock-based drones as part of the 2023 Commercial UAV Expo Conference program. You can also sign up for our newsletter to receive any all Expo updates.