Drones Are Becoming Energy's New Roustabouts


THE egg white drone lifted off from its ground station at a hospital construction site here, hovered for an instant, then zoomed off, sounding like a five-pound bee as it buzzed around the cranes towering over the six-acre project. Capable of carrying a high-resolution camera and other sensors, the quadcopter, a helicopter with four rotors that resembles a spaceship from a 1950s science fiction movie, was flying in a demonstration of its ability to serve a potentially lucrative new market for drones: the energy industry. Skycatch, a year-old start-up based in San Francisco that has raised $3.2 million from Google and other investors, built the drone. The company has already signed deals to test its technology with the construction giants Bechtel and DPR; First Solar, a developer of photovoltaic power plants; and SolarCity, a solar panel installer. Drones from Skycatch and more established companies are monitoring power lines, inspecting oil and gas pipelines, checking wind turbines for defects and pinpointing malfunctioning solar panels. “Drones can do just about anything the energy companies don’t want to send people to do,” said Michael Blades, an analyst for the research firm Frost & Sullivan, who studies the unmanned aerial vehicle, or U.A.V., industry. The Federal Aviation Administration in 2007 imposed what amounted to a nationwide no-fly zone on commercial drones in the United States while it wrote rules regulating their operation, but in March an administrative law judge for the National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the F.A.A. had no authority to impose such a ban. The F.A.A. said it expected to issue regulations for the commercial operation of small drones by the end of this year. While it is not clear what regulations will eventually emerge, a host of companies is planning to take to the skies with drones. Amazon has said it plans to deliver packages with drones, and Google just purchased Titan Aerospace, a maker of high-altitude drone satellites. Executives at Aeryon Labs, a Canadian company that made headlines for supplying drones to rebels in Libya, say energy is a growth area, as sensor-equipped drones offer a safe, low-cost way to inspect smokestacks, power lines and wind turbines without having to send workers to scale towers or hiring helicopters, which can cost thousands of dollars an hour to operate. “To do a detailed inspection of a tower is very difficult, as it’s hard to get close enough, and of course there’s the safety issue,” said Ian McDonald, an Aeryon vice president. Aeryon has dispatched its drones to look for cracks in wind turbine blades, which can hang hundreds of feet above the ground. BP has deployed Aeryon drones and thermal cameras in Alaska to scan oil pipelines for hot spots that may indicate structural weaknesses. Unlike the large, airplanelike military drones built for combat, commercial U.A.V.s tend to be small and nimble battery-operated helicopters. The advent of cheap 3-D printing of drone parts, open-source software and cloud computing has let start-ups like Skycatch jump in. For Christian Sanz, Skycatch’s chief executive, the energy market is more about data than drones. A tech industry veteran, he began tinkering with drones, building his own U.A.V. outfitted with a GoPro camera. He volunteered to fly the drone over a local construction site and take photos so managers could monitor the project’s progress. Soon he was being deluged with requests. “It was this massive demand for data that led me to start the business,” Mr. Sanz said.



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