With its headquarters in Tempe, Arizona, Salt River Project (SRP) is one of the primary power and water suppliers for the metropolitan Phoenix region. In 2016, SRP recognized that drones could go a long way in the maintenance of utility assets and began researching the best way to implement a drone program. After figuring out the legality of implementing a drone program, SRP initiated drone usage in 2017. The first step was to train pilots and have them obtain the FAA’s Part 107 license. To ensure that SRP drone pilots are exceeding safety expectations, they are also required to stay up to date on all current FAA regulations and log in a certain number of flight hours each month, regardless of work orders.
After seeing just how efficient the drones were at inspecting a power plant, SRP branched out to use them for the inspection of power poles scattered throughout their territory, but first SRP had to alert people of the drones. SRP committed to notifying customers 2 weeks in advance of a drone inspection with at least one reminder notice. They also assured customers that the only images to be captured would be those pertaining to SRP objectives. SRP easily achieves this in 2 ways. The first is that all drone operations are to be conducted during morning hours when people have already begun their daily routines and are less likely to be accidentally captured on camera. The second is by having a 2 person drone team. One person is strictly the pilot while the other controls the camera. This allows the camera person to focus capturing only the necessary images.
However, SRP discovered that having drone operators in multiple departments was proving to be somewhat disorganized. So they incorporated all drone operations under one department, the Flight Services team. When a department needs to use a drone, they contact the Flight Service team who is responsible for following all SRP and FAA protocols and arranging the drone mission. Jason Gunawardena, a Senior Electrical Engineer who has been with SRP for 17 years, said that the Flight Service team and drones have made his job safer and more efficient. “The drones provide every perspective we could ever imagine,” he said. “Normally we have to have a guy in a truck, you can just see it from the ground up. Now with the drones, you have the best cameras, we have thermal imaging, and we also have access to the poles.”
The drones can see things that trained engineers like Jason simply cannot see with the naked eye. The drones are also able to safely access hard to reach places and to do so in record time. Jason explained that in the past a ground crew could hope to inspect 50 poles in one day. The drones can inspect upwards of 140 poles with greater accuracy in one day. Large scale inspection projects that would have previously taken 2-3 weeks to complete can now be done in a matter of hours. The drone data is uploaded and then analyzed so that repair crews can efficiently take care of what needs to be done. “We’re just here to make sure that the power, the lights, stay on for the customers out here,” Jason said. With drones, SRP can do just that.