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Business and Technology Insights

Drones: Transforming Utilities Businesses?

 
December 6, 2016

Utilities industry sector CxOs need to cope with three universally dreaded problems falling trees, tornadoes and hurricanes which together, are the top cause for business outages. Utilities companies typically spend $6-8 billion annually, on inspecting and trimming trees, and keeping them away from lines and equipment. However, manual equipment inspection by ground crew is not just effort intensive, but also costly and risky. Automated methods such as surveys involving Light Imaging, Detection, and Ranging (LIDAR) involve the use of airborne helicopters to illuminate survey targets with laser lights and use the laser guidance as results. But airborne helicopters too are expensive.

Is there a better option, such as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or drones? Drones today, are transforming business operations. With commercial drone sales expected to grow from 600,000 in 2016, to 2.7 million by 2020, drones are here to stay. Thanks to advancement in technology, drones are a commercially viable proposition, and can deliver unmatched returns. For instance, the reduced cost and size of advanced sensors, makes LIDAR equipment light enough to be carried by drones paving the way for perfect 3D imaging and mapping applications. Businesses are re-imagining their operations with drones, and there is no reason for Utilities to be left behind.

In the Utilities sector, drones present an opportunity to accelerate ongoing transformation of business models, ensure damage prevention, and drive quick, easy and cost effective damage repair. Lets understand with examples. A typical case is equipment inspection. Drone inspection data can be used to build 3D maps of individual trees, which in turn, can be used for measuring and pre-empting the threat of failing trees. Drone-assisted overhead inspections can facilitate storm damage assessment, outage management, risk response and sub-station inspection. In the United States, power companies are deploying drones to detect trouble in transmission lines especially during bad weather conditions, and ensure rigorous inspection of plants, even in hard to reach places. The National Agricultural Aviation Association has proposed usage of drones for detecting and avoiding collision of low-flying aircrafts with crop dusters. Asset management, condition monitoring, and vegetation management are other use cases. In an innovative move, a US based Utilities company deployed drones for inspecting 8-10 storey tall boilers in its plants in Colorado and Minnesota. Besides ensuring worker safety, speed, and operational agility, this company also saved effort and cost on scaffolding equipment, ladders, and other inspection devices. With the Internet of Things (IoT) becoming integral part of IT landscapes, very soon, drones will accompany line worker trucks to sites, inspect equipment, and transmit real-time data to enterprise systems. While these automation use cases are important for driving operational agility, drone-assisted security surveillance, vandalism deterrence, and worker safety are important aspects that must be given priority for drone boarding.

Drones on Demand: The New As a Service Model

For Utilities CFOs, better financial forecasting and improved cash flows are some immediate benefits of drone deployment. However, given the capital intensive nature of drone investments, provisioning large budgets for a fleet of drones is not viable. That brings me to the as a service and pay per use model, which is a good and quick way to make your first drone airborne. Drone service providers have started full scale operations in many countries, and in my opinion, the Drones as a Service (DaaS) business will be larger in volume and deal ticket size, than the drone hardware business.

Changing Responsibility for Quality Assurance

From the Quality Assurance (QA) & Testing perspective, drones and robots demand a new kind of assurance much beyond the typical user action-system response test cases. This necessitates that the assurance portfolio be enhanced to include regulations, safety standards, continuous checks, and comprehensive test plans for assuring drone hardware and software. Drone regulation agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US, and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) have already released guidelines. Other countries will follow shortly. Currently, drone regulations are cumbersome, but with more business drones taking to the skies, regulators, industries and academia will need to think together, and come up with industry friendly regulations.

Meanwhile, the ball clearly is in the QA court. QA & Testing teams at Utilities companies must provision drone assurance infrastructure, tools and processes, and enable their businesses to navigate the regulatory maze, remain compliant, and minimize risks.

Just like any new technology, drones too, come with risks and limitations. Privacy advocates view drones as prying eyes, flying in the skies. Hence, QAs role doesnt end simply with drone assurance. It also has a social obligation protecting privacy of customers and others with set of robust usage controls and safeguards. Hence Utilities CIOs and Heads of Testing must also ask whether their QA teams doing enough to protect the privacy cause. After all, with powerful technology comes greater responsibility!

Dr. Debadatta Sahoo is working as Business Development Manager in TCS' Assurance Services Unit. He has 16+ years of experience in TCS, spanning across various leadership roles including Customer Relationship Management, Account Management and Project Management areas in Energy & Utilities, Retail, Manufacturing, BFS, Media & Entertainment industry sectors. He holds a Doctoral Degree in Strategic Management, MBA in Marketing & Finance and graduation degree in Computer science. He has completed TOGAF, ITIL v3, MCSD, SCP, RUP, BEC III certifications.