utilities will need to determine where to align their new products
and services within the current regulatory model, i.e., as part of the
traditional core regulated business offering or as a competitively
tariffed offering that can be placed in either the regulated or non-regulated segments. Thus, incumbents will need to develop and
leverage a level of regulatory entrepreneurship that enables them to
navigate a different market than previously existed.
With this need to define the structural placement of new products
and services, utilities will need to enhance their knowledge of the
available business models to support their market participation. In a
products and services-based world, the utility industry will need to
recognize that it is moving from an investment and return model of
profit, to a sales and margin model. These are very different models
and carry unique risk profiles from one another, and therefore specific
strategies for success.
Industry pundits consistently call attention to the need for
utilities to embrace a different business model in the future. However,
the notion of a single new business model does not reflect the
requirements of the future market (Figure 3). The utility industry will
need to become agile at living within multiple business models as
the current traditional model is not being wholly displaced; rather it
is being complemented by new positioning and pricing models that
reflect the future shape of the market, realities of competition and the
preferences of customers.
Successful companies will frame their ‘go-to-market’ strategies based
on market foresight rather than simple backward-facing insight. They
will be adept at converting market knowledge and intuition into strategies
that signal a differentiable customer experience, as well as produce
enhanced revenue streams and an expanded customer relationship.
TAKE FLIGHT continued from page 17
Some drone makers will claim that in an emergency, their drone
has an autonomous return-home function. Without a good pre-flight
rehearsal, however, a GPS glitch might send a drone tens or hundreds
of miles in the wrong direction if the last mission the UAS ran was
not cleared from its memory. For example, think of the challenge of
launching a drone from a moving boat to perform inspections across
a body of water. A company might say its drone has a return-to-home
function in the event of an emergency. On a moving boat, however,
“home” is changing minute by minute. In other words, autonomy in
drones is not yet as smart as it needs to be. Good preparation and pilot
awareness, therefore, is critical.
Maintenance is required to keep a drone running. Someone inside
a utility (or a contractor) has to understand the drone’s capabilities,
repair schedule and limitations to keep it ready to fly when needed.
What is Your Drone Made Of?
The real power of a drone comes when a utility’s engineers and
linemen see and understand the aircraft’s capability. In fact, this is the
stage when Con Edison began thinking of additional applications for
its drones, which drone operators would not have had the experience
to suggest. The drone should be industrial-grade quality; it should
be able to withstand variable wind conditions and accomplish a
30-minute sortie. In addition, it should have a carbon monoframe and
be equipped with an electromechanical shield.
While some drones can stay aloft for nearly 90 minutes, it is not
practical to run a mission that long under the current regulations. First,
asking a pilot to stay focused on a drone for this long is physically
taxing and unsafe. And second, it is important to save battery life for
contingencies and emergencies.
A lot of the early adopters of drones turned to universities that
were allowed to fly before the recently granted FAA exemptions
became available for commercial drone operators. Some utilities paid
universities to research drones and develop UAS to overcome the
limitations of climbing and ground inspections. The drone technology
developed by many universities happened in a “silo,” however,
without input from either pilots or the industries with experience. For
example, one scholarly institution built a drone with a cage around
it to protect it from hitting a power line it was to inspect. Although
the drone could fly, a cage is hardly aerodynamic and, in fact, adds
extra weight, which reduces flight time. The companies that exist
to make drones, however, have to generate a profit. So they identify
or develop UAS that maximize operational efficiency. Commercial
drone providers also have the advantage of working with a variety of
customers to incorporate feedback from across an industry.
Structuring a Drone Program
When people begin exploring a drone program, some managers feel
they should undertake it by themselves. As utilities consider what is
involved in launching and maintaining such a program, however, they
tend to amend the initial plan to include having a third party teach
employees how to run a drone program and then turn over operation
of the drones to the utility. Some utilities decide the greatest cost
savings and ease of use comes from outsourcing the pilot and leasing
the drone. For such clients this includes hiring a vendor’s pilot, sensor
operator and visual observer along with assigning the drone crew a
safety person from the utility.
Obvious jobs for a drone program are inspections of transmission
towers, generation plants, wind turbines and solar cells. For example,
a drone equipped with a thermal camera can scan an entire solar cell
during the course of a 30-minute flight, whereas a human would need
a day to complete the same job. At generation plants, plant managers
often coordinate maintenance inspections with a planned outage and
erect scaffolding to see the equipment (e.g., boilers) that a drone can
reach safely in a few minutes.
As UAS technology and the market for drones mature, almost all
utilities will consider obtaining data provided by drones in one shape
or another. Ensuring that the data from a drone arrives in a manager’s
hands in a timely, accurate and reliable way requires balancing
regulations, operations and technology.