Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have been dabbled with throughout the power industry for years. POWER featured a drone on its cover in April 2014, and has published many articles on drone technology since then. Yet, the technology has been used more as a novelty in the power sector up to this point.
As a guest on The POWER Podcast, Reese Mozer, CEO and co-founder of American Robotics, suggested that could change in the very near future. “We’ve all been talking about this for a very long time—you know, a decade plus—and despite all that, we really are not even scratching the surface yet of the scale that drones will be implemented and the value that will come from them,” he said. “But we are about to enter a very different generation of drone technology—and really robotics in general—and, you know, I think the next decade is going to look quite a bit different.”
According to Mozer, American Robotics has developed the next generation of drone technology. The company offers a fully automated drone system that’s capable of continuous unattended operation. Mozer explained that the autonomous drones work in conjunction with automated base stations to capture, process, analyze, and transfer data remotely to a user. The base stations charge and house the drones to prepare them for their next flight. He said this level of automation is key to finally unlocking drones as a viable tool for the energy sector.
“The reality is that until we can remove the human from the loop, drones will not be able to scale to the levels that everybody has imagined,” Mozer said. “Once we can, [that] changes the economics of working with a drone. That changes the logistics. Not only does it make it affordable and practical to actually scale, it actually unlocks a whole different type of data collection, and thus, analysis that we can do on that data.”
There are still some challenges to overcome, however, such as getting Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations updated to allow autonomous operation. “That is the primary hurdle stopping this technology from taking off,” Mozer said. “American Robotics has developed the technology, the automation, the machine vision, the AI [artificial intelligence] that’s required to actually conduct these automated operations reliably in the real world. And the last step for us, and for the rest of the industry, is to overcome FAA regulations.
“Beyond line of sight is probably the most key. There’s also a list of other ones that would prohibit this kind of automated operation,” he said. “And that’s one of the reasons that we don’t see drones flying all over the place right now.”
There is reason for optimism. “We expect it in the near future,” Mozer said. “This topic is something that has been debated over and worked on from both a technology perspective and a policy perspective for really the past decade, and we think that that change is coming quite soon.”
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—Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).