A drone flying inside a building in front of a control panel in the Electric Power Training Center.

Droning on: WAPA’s formal unmanned aerial system training lifts off

More than 40 of WAPA’s front-line workforce graduated Feb. 24 from the organization’s first formalized unmanned aerial systems training program.

The two-day training, overseen by WAPA’s Aviation office, is the culmination of more than six years of work to bring the UAS aircraft, commonly known as drones, into the organization’s mission of maintaining transmission lines throughout the western U.S. The program’s intent varies, but as WAPA’s Aviation Manager Richard Westra described, the goal has always been to safely minimize the time linemen and work crews need to scale transmission poles.

“This idea for drones came from listening to our workforce,” Westra said. “We wanted to limit linemen from having to climb so much, as well as providing our workforce with a strong tool they could use to keep them out of high-risk environments. So, we believed drones could be the answer to that.”

During the training at WAPA’s Electric Power Training Center in Lakewood, Colorado, employees focused on classroom education and flight training. During day one, attendees learned about Federal Aviation Administration guidelines governing UAS aircraft, the components of the handheld systems and how they integrate into WAPA operations.

On day two, WAPA staff were introduced to flight training, piloting the UAS aircraft around the EPTC. After training, they received certification to safely pilot UAS aircraft to perform transmission line inspections and maintenance.

The graduation featured transmission linemen, electricians, and protection and communications technicians representing each of WAPA’s regional offices.

A vision takes flight

In 2016, Westra, one of WAPA’s senior helicopter pilots, thought drones could solve problems facing the organization. The Aviation office procured WAPA’s first drone with the goal of limiting the amount of time linemen spend climbing up and down power poles. His team first tested the new UAS in the Desert Southwest region.

“After finding initial success in that drone, we then procured two more,” Westra said. “For the next two to three years, we proved the concept of UAS aircraft being used in the field.”

During the concept phase, Westra, now joined by a cadre of linemen who shared his vision, needed to search out a supplier. That’s when Skydio, a California-based manufacturer, came into view.

“We were looking around for a drone that could meet our unique needs, but also wanted to find a U.S.-based manufacturer at the same time,” Westra said. “Our needs included simplicity, ruggedness and reliability.”

Evaluating Skydio’s product line, Westra and his team determined the drones could contribute to WAPA’s core mission of transmission line maintenance. WAPA would become that company’s first U.S. government client.

Since then, with UAS aircraft fully integrated into WAPA’s mission, linemen and technicians have seen a decrease in safety-related issues and time spent on work orders. This has resulted in cost savings for WAPA and its nearly 700 customers throughout the West.

Westra said that, traditionally, a single call to inspect a line or transmission pole could cost thousands of dollars just for an inspection, let alone any significant repairs. Instead of the hours it takes to do inspections with linemen or technicians climbing poles, UAS aircraft can perform the same task in minutes.

“The hours and hours of average calls are now cut down, at least in half,” Westra said. “This means savings to both WAPA’s budget, and our own. The program has also reduced exposure and health risk to our workforce, has increased preventative maintenance to our transmission lines and reduced costs, like fuel for our helicopter fleet due to reduced flight requirements with traditional aviation.”

“The drone program has given us a unique ability to provide a higher level of detailed inspection, allowing WAPA another tool to ensure the reliability of transmission lines,” he added.

High Voltage Electrician David Katich instructs trainees. In February, WAPA graduated its first group of employees formally trained to operate unmanned aerial systems, which provide an additional tool to help Maintenance crews stay safe.
High Voltage Electrician David Katich instructs trainees. In February, WAPA graduated its first group of employees formally trained to operate unmanned aerial systems, which provide an additional tool to help Maintenance crews stay safe.

Making a UAS operator

Unlike buying a drone and flying it at the park half an hour later, WAPA has adopted a formalized process ensuring proper training and adherence to regulations.

Westra and his team identified four primary steps linemen or technicians need to complete to become a WAPA UAS operator.

First, employees must engage their supervisors to show interest in the program.

Next, Westra said they must seek FAA certification by earning their Part 107 certified drone license. Those who fly drones recreationally don’t require licensing from the FAA, but federal licensing is required to use drones commercially. The certification costs $250. Westra said the Aviation office used to pay for it, but because WAPA has embraced the program, the regions now assume employee certification costs.

With 107 licensing completed, employees must go to their supervisor and request funding to order a drone. The Aviation office maintains the specifications the drones need, including software to make them more effective for WAPA requirements and technology systems.

“Once that’s done,” Westra said, “the drone is then registered and delivered, waiting to be fielded.”

With the drone in hand and WAPA employee licensed, it’s time to get WAPA-certified. Supervised by an Aviation representative, the trainee pilots an initial drone flight. Upon successful completion, the employee becomes a WAPA UAS operator.

“Because our program has focused on quality since day one, we are now seen as a benchmark for how everyone else in the Department of Energy is rated,” Westra said. “What makes me feel the best is that we have the tools and funds to get these crews to a level they can perform to the extent they do every day.”

Going forward, Westra said the UAS workshop will act as both initial certification and refresher course, saving time and money for regional offices.

Changing the culture

As WAPA’s UAS program continued to mature, one of the barriers Westra reflected on wasn’t flight regulations or technical know-how, but the organization’s culture.

“Linemen as a trade craft tend to be very independent,” Westra said. “They believe they are the best at what they do, and sometimes, this can lead to pushback from adopting new ways of doing business.”

Upper Great Plains Lineman Paul Inman, one of the original three field staff to embrace UAS technology, agreed with Westra’s sentiment.

“I remember the first I even heard about drones in WAPA was while Rich was flying me out to a location in South Dakota,” Inman recalled. “I was really interested, but at the time, leadership was concerned about the lack of resources and if there was even a need for it. Rich told me, ‘Go get your schooling done, and Aviation will send you a drone.’”

At first, “Paul’s toy,” as the drone became affectionately known, was comical to some staff. As time went on, requests began to make their way to Inman. First came requests to inspect lines in hard-to-reach canyons. Then came requests to aerially survey damaged lines from large storms and corn crops that WAPA Maintenance staff had driven over to repair transmission lines – ensuring documentation for farmer restitution.

But the true moment of the drone’s capability came on March 14, 2019, when the Spencer Dam project, located along Nebraska’s Niobrara River, failed and collapsed. This monumental dam failure wreaked havoc downstream, taking out power lines crossing the river. Immediately, WAPA needed a detailed analysis of the area to get power turned back on in surrounding communities.

“Once the river washed the dam out, we had issues with finding a new place to put in the power lines,” said Inman, a 20-year lineman with WAPA. “Management asked me to bring the drone out to do a survey of the damage, providing Engineering, Environment and other offices with documentation of the situation. After that, there was no turning back. Management briefed later that if WAPA personnel needed drone support, contact Paul.”

As management continued to embrace the new technology over time, Westra said the organization’s front-line workforce also saw the value.

“The [UAS] program had a commonality that brought the teams together, and now people believe they are making a difference through the technology,” Westra said. “This brings a unique culture into WAPA that is a secondary effect of us adopting this new way of doing business.”

WAPA’s front-line workers had engaged in continuous process improvement and identified best practices for UAS operations.

“Our operators have now used the UAS aircraft to assess road conditions not visible from their work vehicles, take detailed images of component serial numbers and identified worn-out hardware,” Westra said. “This has really allowed us to be much more active in keeping both our lights on and the wires where they need to be, versus reacting when lines fall from the poles and responding to them.”

An eye on the future

Westra said the UAS program continues to evolve at WAPA, especially as more employees get licensed and certified and the technologies advance.

“We continue to have meetings with stakeholders and [the vendor] on what we can do to be responsive to our core mission of transmission maintenance,” Westra said. “The capabilities on the horizon are very interesting.”

Some of those capabilities include infrared cameras, which could provide WAPA a unique capability to identify problem areas with transmission lines even faster, including line overloads that generate abnormal heat signatures. Westra also envisioned pre-positioned UAS along transmission lines, allowing linemen to tap into drones anywhere along WAPA’s 17,000 circuit miles of line.

Even with future possibilities presenting themselves, Westra stressed the core mission of the UAS program remains critical: minimize the risk to WAPA’s workforce safety through comprehensive training and certification.

“This third level of oversight with our drones, married with linemen conducting visual inspections and helicopters overhead, has given us an opportunity to do our jobs better and more cost efficient,” Westra said. “Our workforce has adapted well to drones, and the professional work they do shows through.”

Note: The author is a public affairs specialist.

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Last modified on March 8th, 2024