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05.21.2020Business Tech

Using advanced drone technology to keep the power on

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The second largest U.S. public utility deploys drones and advanced technology to keep workers and customers safe while building a more resilient grid.

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Keeping the power on is a dangerous business—at least for workers who work 100 feet off the ground, near high-voltage power sources and flammable materials, and in confined spaces. It’s no wonder Southern Company and its subsidiaries were among the first energy companies to embrace advanced technologies such as drones to reduce the risk of serious injuries and fatalities and to prevent outages.

Southern Company is a leading energy company in the U.S., serving 9 million customers through its subsidiaries across seven states with operations across America, from Minnesota to Texas and from California to Maine. Southern is responsible for operating nearly 200,000 miles of electric transmission and distribution lines and more than 80,000 miles of natural gas pipeline.

In addition to deploying drones to inspect poles and pipelines, they’re using them to improve safety as workers support the power grid millions rely on while staying safe at home during the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic.

“Southern Company is constantly monitoring changing climate conditions and is prepared to respond to service interruptions that might occur due to severe weather,” says Southern’s Chief UAS Pilot Corey Hitchcock. “We are taking proactive actions including social distancing to help protect customers and employees from the spread of the virus.”

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When the sky gets busy

As Southern Company’s drone operations grew larger and more complex, they partnered with Skyward, a Verizon company, to help manage drone fleets and prepare for the future of cellular-connected drones.

Recently, Southern Company performed a large-scale demonstration of their drone program. Using the Skyward platform, they were able to track all their aircraft and crew members across several states as the flights took place, allowing them to oversee operations from disbursed homes and offices.

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Skyward’s InFlight mobile ground control station displays drone location and flight path on the new Live Flights map.

“Tracking our data, knowing where our pilots are, and deconflicting our airspace are all really important during disasters, when we have helicopters flying our lines and rescue helicopters doing operations,” says Hitchcock. “Skyward InFlight lets the company see where our manned and unmanned aircraft are and where operators are, so those assets can be kept apart and allowed to operate safely inside the National Airspace System.”

Earlier this year, Skyward and Verizon performed an LTE characterization test at one of Southern Company’s substations, measuring and recording signal strength and interference levels at three different altitude ranges. This data may help coordinate helicopters and drones during emergency response missions. It also lays foundations for a future system of universal traffic management to safely connect every aircraft in the sky, whether manned or unmanned.

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More power to take flight

Since 2018, Skyward has provided Southern Company with drone management software for airspace access, efficient workflows and compliance—as well as consulting, regulatory support, hardware and opportunities for innovation.

“We use Skyward to track and report everything from safety management data to flight hours per asset—information that we used to collect on paper. Skyward lets us monitor all our active flights across the country as they’re happening in real time, and even helped us provide situational awareness to our helicopters that operate in the same airspace,” says Hitchcock.

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Seeing drones in a new light

Southern Company's investments in smart grid and drone technology in recent years is intended to translate into an increased ability to more quickly isolate outages and reroute power remotely for improved reliability, all while reducing risks. At the same time, their comprehensive pandemic plans help ensure that critical personnel and facilities are ready to continue providing the safe and reliable energy customers expect and deserve.

Find out more about how Skyward’s drone workflow management system is helping utilities innovate here.