As industry and society in general come back on line after months of interruption due to the threat of COVID- 19, Garrett Scott, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) coordinator for Duke Energy, said he believes "a lot of the things we're seeing right now, whether because of social distancing or the financial [aspect], are going to be around for quite a while after we move out of this mandated period."
Clockwise from top left, Sean Guerre of Stone Fort Group, Corey Hitchcock of Southern Company, Shankar Naddarajah of ExxonMobil, John McClain of Shell, Scott McGowan of Precision Aerial Energy participate in a webinar panel on unmanned aircraft systems.
Scott said he expects Duke Energy will apply particular focus on investment "and the protocols we need to make things safer."
Co-panelist John McClain, security specialist and chief drone pilot for Shell, agreed with Scott during a recent webinar panel presented by the Energy Drone and Robotics Coalition, observing that the proliferation of livestreaming during the pandemic has proven to be "a valuable tool."
"We can put a drone up, start a livestream, talk to them through the livestream and do inspections remotely for now -- instead of them being by our side, as I prefer," he said. McClain added that he and his associates are also taking advantage of this "new normal" to fine-tune automated procedures.
"If we're conducting inspections for automated flight, we make sure that we're getting the same routes over and over for the logistics folks, and we're trying to expand on some of our third-party stuff," he said.
Shankar Nadarajah, global drone visual inspection manager for ExxonMobil, said the interruption of recent months has allowed him and the teams at ExxonMobil to "take a step back and look at why we started this journey with UAS."
Nadarajah said the first half of 2020 allowed for an even greater emphasis on the safety of all personnel.
"We have been working in some adverse environments -- confined spaces and locations at heights. I think that [safety] message doesn't change," Nadarajah explained.
Recently, as companies experienced the additional pressure of social distancing guidelines "like how many people can be at a given location or how close they can be located near each other... it just goes to show how resilient this technology has been during this time of need to help address a lot of those concerns," Nadarajah said.
Applying technological advantage
Nadarajah said he is confident additional precautions will continue in the future, even as some health mandates are relaxed.
"Typically, you have teams with a scaffolding crew and bucket trucks. You're adding up all the people involved just to do an inspection and then, potentially, the repair work afterward," he explained. "I think we're going to take a step back, look and say, 'We've got this technology at our fingertips; let's use it.' It's easy to use and the service is in place, so I think our customers are seeing this as a valuable tool to help address a lot of the challenges ahead."
Corey Hitchcock, UAS standardization pilot for Southern Company, expects the focus of his company for at least the next year or so to be unmanned operations in the reactive control areas of nuclear facilities.
"That use case has become pretty prevalent, once [people] saw the quality of product and ease of use of indoor-based drones," he said. "We've really started to see the demand increase. Once they found out we can fly these drones into dangerous, dark places where you don't want to [send a worker], demand grew significantly."