If a strategic investment from GE is any indication, drones will have a serious role to play in field service and maintenance in the not-too-distant future. In November, the industrial giant’s investment arm, GE Ventures, invested an undisclosed amount in Airware, a San Francisco-based commercial drone company — and the company has spoken publicly about its plans to leverage drones for service and inspection on remote oil pipelines and wind turbines, among other assets. GE isn’t the only company vying to take drones from futuristic toy to practical tool — venture capital investments in drone start-ups doubled in 2014 compared to the previous year.

Until recently, an uncertain regulatory climate had been a barrier to further investments but, with the FAA’s recent announcement of new rules, drone applications in the service industry now face a much clearer path, according to one analyst.

Clearing the Regulatory Air

Guy Courtin

Guy Courtin

“I think the opportunities for [the field service industry] are much more expansive than for other industries,” says Guy Courtin, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research. The new regulations — which include a ban on nighttime operations and require operators to remain in sight of drones — would hinder more radical applications, such as Amazon’s plans for a fleet of delivery drones, but leave options open for the service industry.

“It’s the ‘three D’s,” Courtin says. “Any job that is dull, dirty or dangerous can start being migrated over to a drone or robot.”

In the context of field service, that could be visual inspection of remote or treacherously located assets such as telephone lines, wind turbines, oil and gas pipelines, railyards or even simply monitoring snow levels on a roof during winter. Rather than send a worker to physically inspect a piece of equipment, the worker could pilot a camera or sensor-equipped drone to do the dirty work.

Airborne Service Technicians

In the near-future, as the technology gets more sophisticated and regulations adjust, Courtin predicts that there will be more specialized drones that can go beyond simple inspection to perform maintenance. Rather than merely inspect a malfunctioning part on a telephone or utility pole, for example, a specialized drone could potentially perform simple maintenance operations. Drones could also transport spare parts to a service location or pre-inspect the area in question.

“What if you could send a drone out beforehand to inspect it and then relay back to central to say, ‘This is the problem; this is what we need; so make sure you put the right pieces in the truck,’” Courtin says. “From a service standpoint, that could really help control spare part costs, service costs, dispatch costs and it would just be more efficient.”

In the future, drones could end up functioning more like a co-worker than a technician replacement. Courtin describes a hypothetical situation in which a repairman working atop a wind turbine or utility pole could consult a technical expert in real time via a networked drone.

For now, though, drones remain a relatively unexplored frontier. But Courtin is optimistic about their near-term applications in the field. “It opens up opportunities in the service space to bring more value-add.”

Below, GE Ventures executives Sue Siegel (CEO) and Alex Tepper (managing director), discuss how GE is rethinking service with drones in mind:

ABOUT Lauren Zanolli

Avatar photoLauren is a freelance journalist most interested in what happens at the intersection of technology, business and society. She has covered economic development in the Middle East from Istanbul, microfinance and social entrepreneurship from Mumbai, and worked in the solar energy business while in San Francisco. She is currently based in New Orleans. Find her on Twitter @LaurenZanolli