Drones are known for their military service, not field service. But that might change.

A New Zealand-based electricity distributor, Counties Power, is reportedly looking into the use of drones, a.k.a. unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for emergency repairs. When power poles and telephone lines are damaged, the need for a rapid response is critical. Counties Power isn’t looking at mid-air repair jobs using laser beams; rather it is contemplating the use of drones for aerial images so that techs arrive on the scene of a disaster debriefed on the fix required and armed with the necessary equipment.

The payoff: faster restoration of power and minimal damage control. “We thought it was a bit ‘pie in the sky’ at first, but now we’ve looked into it we’ll probably do it,” said Richard Deihl, systems development manager of Counties Power.
As an example, Deihl cites a car crashing into a power pole. “We could launch the drone, send it to the GPS coordinates of the pole, have it circle around, take pictures and video and send them back well before anybody could get out there,” said Deihl.

Cheap, Off-the-Shelf & Ready-to-Fly

Deihl’s right that the idea isn’t so far-fetched. Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority lists 33 licensed drone operators in the country — and 12 of those offer power-line inspection. With so many field tech operators serving industrial equipment sites and facing potentially hazardous repairs, drones make sense.

What’s more, drones are already being deployed for other uses, in agriculture and for weather tracking and catching poachers.

Think that cost is an issue? Nope. About $2,000 will buy you a “small, high performance multi-rotor” drone with HD live-stream video cameras, autopilot, top speed of 43.5 m.p.h., a 15-20 minute flight time and a range of almost two miles, according to a CFOWorld.com posting that sources the cost estimate to sUAS News. A little more than $100,000 gets you something decidedly more hard-core: an off-the-shelf UAV platform with auto take-off and landing, up to a four-hour flight duration, and imaging sensors, reports The Conversation, a blog written by a robotics professor at the University of Sydney.

Sure, drones aren’t likely to become mainstream in field service. Opponents, for instance, condem the idea primarily on privacy and safety grounds. But you can see the appeal for certain providers of mission-critical services. Regulators this week announced they are seeking a record $2.25 billion penalty from Northern California utility PG&E for its role in a 2010 pipeline explosion that killed eight people and damaged 100 homes.

What do you think? What roles do you envision drones playing in future field service operations? Tell us your opinion. Post a comment below.