Drones graduate from playthings to storm troopers FEATURE
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Flying hurricane-recovery missions for electric utilities and insurance companies, drones come of age.

No longer just a high-end diversion for hobbyists, drones have secured important commercial roles, now taking flight for electric utilities and insurance companies in the aftermath of catastrophic hurricanes in Texas and Florida.

Drones extend the reach of disaster-response teams working to restore power and jump-start insurance claims in storm-ravaged areasPinpointing downed power lines, checking out electrical substations and flying over storm-damaged rooftops, drones extend the reach of disaster-response teams working to restore power and jump-start insurance claims in storm-ravaged areas.

See also: Cisco supporting Hurricane Harvey relief effort

"It's another tool in our toolkit to get the lights back on as safely and as quickly as possible for our customers," said Bill Orlove, spokesman for Florida Power & Light Co., 3.5 million of whose customers lost power during Hurricane Irma's Sept. 11 assault.

Eye in the sky

Matt Dunlevy, president and CEO of SkySkopes, a national drone operations company, brought several crews from his North Dakota headquarters to Houston after Hurricane Harvey in late August and then to Jacksonville to survey Irma damages for electric utilities.

He cited safety and speed of recovery as the two biggest advantages of deploying drones, known in the industry as unmanned aerial vehicles.

"It's being able to get eyes on the assets that are damaged by the weather — in some cases, in areas that are not traversable by crews on the ground — and having an eye in the sky that doesn't put a human being in the sky," Dunlevy said. "If something malfunctions on an unmanned craft, it's just a broken piece of equipment, but if something malfunctions on a manned aircraft, there's potential for injury."

As for speed of recovery, problems that might take days for ground crews to locate and assess can be confirmed within hours or even minutes by a drone.

"Unmanned aircraft provide unique value in that they can get up close to a power line that needs to be inspected. It can be done with immediacy and provides viewing angles that otherwise aren't obtainable," Dunlevy said.

High-tech payload

SkySkopes' go-to model is the DJI-M600 aircraft, which Dunlevy described as economical with vertical takeoff and landing capability while carrying a 10-pound payload.

The high-tech equipment aboard, including thermal and electro-optical sensors, provides real-time data and images to emergency operations centers, which can dispatch ground crews to the exact location to begin repairs.

Insurance companies, including State Farm, Allstate and Farmers, deploy drones to give adjusters a bird's-eye view of wrecked homes and businesses.

"They are most helpful on residential properties with roofs that are steep and high," said Farmers spokeswoman Carly Kraft. "From a technical standpoint, the drones' industrial design camera captures higher-resolution, 3-D images capable of detecting granule loss and physical damage, which provides an accurate rooftop inspection and can generate analytic reports in minutes."

Drones as standard equipment

Allstate added drones to its toolkit after Hurricane Matthew, a Category 1 storm when it made landfall Oct. 8, 2016, near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, spokesman Justin Herndon said.

"We sent a human adjuster onto a roof to do an inspection and sent a drone up on the same roof to compare the quality of the assessments," he said. "We left there very convinced of the accuracy of the drone."

Several months later, Allstate made drones standard equipment in its four core states — Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico — and will be expanding drone ops nationwide in 2018, Herndon said.

"Having drones as a regular inspection method in Texas, it was business as usual after Harvey, just another day for us as far as using drones is concerned," he said.

Not just for fun anymore

Drones also have entered such industries as real estate, farming and journalism. In the entertainment realm, they've hit the stages of the 2017 Super Bowl halftime show and Disney World.

A key factor behind the rapidly increasing drone deployment is the Federal Aviation Administration, which in August 2016 issued operational rules for commercial use of drones — in effect, acknowledging the aircraft's commercial value, above and beyond its appeal to hobbyists, experts said.

"The creation of the 'Part 107' rules from the FAA has made operations easier, but we still have a long way to go with regards to the regulatory environment," said Mike Frechette, co-founder / principal of AviSight, a drone services company based in Las Vegas.

Robot awaits rollout

While drones were the buzz in hurricane recovery, another unmanned vehicle, designed for emergency assessments, sat in wait. In May 2016, Florida Power & Light debuted an amphibious robot that can provide access to unsafe, flooded areas, such as inundated substations.

See also: Cisco's disruptive innovation flies higher with drones

The size of a lawnmower and weighing about 50 pounds, the four-wheeled device wasn't activated for storm duty in Irma's wake.

"We do see the opportunities of using it, it was something that we showed and have been piloting — but not this time, not this storm," spokesman Orlove said.

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About Matt Bokor

Matt Bokor is a freelance writer living in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.