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posted: 2/11/2017 7:10 AM

Drones help power companies mechanize most dangerous jobs

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  • A DJI S1000 drone. The market to build drones is dominated by DJI, a Chinese drone-maker that has beaten out a steady stream of deep-pocketed challengers from Silicon Valley.

    A DJI S1000 drone. The market to build drones is dominated by DJI, a Chinese drone-maker that has beaten out a steady stream of deep-pocketed challengers from Silicon Valley.
    Bloomberg file photo by Michael Nagle

 
 

Industrial technology has often been a blessing and a curse for workers, eliminating some jobs while making others safer.

That could soon happen at AES Corp., an Arlington, Va.-based power utility that generates $15 billion a year in sales powering homes in 17 countries. The company is moving to replace much of its high-risk maintenance work with a massive fleet of surveillance drones coordinated by Measure, a D.C.-based commercial drone operator.

For companies that own and maintain energy infrastructure, workplace injuries are a serious concern. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recorded 35 deaths last year from workers who were electrocuted while working on or near power lines, and more than 300 who died in falls of various sorts.

In place of sending people to climb power lines or work atop scaffolding, AES is increasingly employing drone pilots to take close-up videos from the safety of a computer screen.

"We want to use this technology to reduce the amount of time that our people are in certain hazardous work conditions," said AES Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Chris Shelton. "Many times that correlates with improved business performance as well."

The company estimates it has eliminated about 15,000 hours of "hazardous work" in the 10 countries where it has deployed drones since 2014. Shelton says the drone fleet has also reduced the need for expensive scaffolding at power plants.

The test program was so successful that the company is planning a massive scale-up that will increase the number of drones it uses "by many multiples," contracting much of the logistical work out to Measure under the terms of a new partnership.

For Measure, the partnership offers a stable path forward in an industry that has seen significant difficulty in the past year.

Personal-use drones can now be purchased online for only a few hundred dollars, contributing to a wave of consolidation across the industry. The market to build the drones themselves is dominated by DJI, a Chinese drone-maker that has beaten out a steady stream of deep-pocketed challengers from Silicon Valley.

San Francisco-based Lily Robotics threw in the towel last month despite booking more than $30 million in preorders, and California-based competitor 3DR left the consumer drone market to focus on software. Mobile video company GoPro's drone business was forced to sit out the year's holiday season because of a recall.

Measure is taking a different strategy. With the help of $15 million from private investors, the company is focusing on the array of complicated services associated with using drone fleets at scale, foregoing the production process and selling its operational services to industrial firms and others. The 30-person company plans to hire 20 more employees to support the scale-up.

Since its founding in 2014, the company has experimented with applications in agriculture and disaster response, but AES will be its largest customer by far, a potentially lucrative foothold in an entrenched industry that is rapidly applying new technologies.

Chief operating officer Jesse Stepler says the partnership with AES is a first for the commercial drone industry.

"There's a lot of hype out there, but not very many initiatives at this level," Stepler said. "This is about taking commercial drones to maturity."

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