After hurricanes, co-op drones hasten power restoration

Bluebonnet Electric Co-op crews use a drone to fly rope across the San Marcos River to speed repairs. [photo: Sarah Beal/Bluebonnet EC]Bluebonnet Electric Co-op crews use a drone to fly rope across the San Marcos River to speed repairs. [photo: Sarah Beal/Bluebonnet EC]Had Hurricane Harvey raked central Texas last year, Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative members near the San Marcos River might have waited up to 10 days to get power back.

Instead, when Harvey caused the river to rise 25 feet in a single day, electricity was flowing in only a few days, thanks a co-op drone purchased just a few months earlier.

“It helped restore power way ahead of time,” said Ray Bitzkie, the Bastrop-based co-op’s facilities construction coordinator and head of its drone program.
In the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, co-ops put their drones to the test of a catastrophic weather event for the first time. Co-op officials said the technology passed with flying colors by pinpointing outages in hard-to-reach areas.

At Jackson Electric Cooperative, a co-op drone team from Pedernales Electric Cooperative flew 60 missions and inspected more than 1,600 poles in a service territory left in the dark by Harvey.

“The drones saved us four days,” said Paul Bourland, line superintendent at Jackson Electric, headquartered in Edna, Texas. “We had a lot of areas inaccessible because of flooding and by using the drone’s GPS capabilities, we saw exactly where the problems were. We knew exactly what we needed and where we needed it.”

Drone footage enabled Bourland and his crew to deploy flat-bottomed boats in precise locations without wading through floodwaters. “We would have had to wait to use four-wheelers,” he said, adding that the co-op is now considering its own unmanned flight aircraft program.

Bitzkie of Bluebonnet called the drone “a great tool” to show progress on construction flights to members, board directors and employees.

“It’s more dynamic than Google Earth and gives you a new perspective.”

The Aug. 30 mission at Bluebonnet, the co-op’s first use of a drone after a storm, was a lesson in choreography.

Bitzkie flew the drone carrying a rope across the flooded river, where other workers stood waiting for it. Luckily, said Will Holford, manager of public affairs, the drone was strong enough to carry its load.

Without the drone, lineworkers would have had to hurl wire across the river or wait for waters to recede.

In other co-op service areas slammed by Harvey and Irma, drones flew short, post-disaster missions, proving their worth in assessing damage and prioritizing work.

Following Irma, Eric Bitzko, a certified drone operator at Pedernales, worked for two days with his crews at Talquin Electric Co-op in Quincy and Clay Electric Co-op in Keystone Heights. Johnson City, Texas-based Pedernales owns four drones.

“Drone operations are a lot less expensive and can be much more efficient than using helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft. In most places, damage occurs in short stretches, so drones are ideal,” he said.

“The drone pilot gets in the bucket and we put it up, and he has great line of sight with the drone to conduct his assessments,” while staying near the service truck, Bitzko added.

Texas co-ops that flew drones after Harvey followed Federal Aviation Administration regulations for small unmanned aircrafts: Operators can fly commercial drones in public air space during daylight hours and within sight of the aircraft, at heights up to 400 feet and at least five miles from the closest airport.

But when the Federal Emergency Management makes disaster declarations, as was the case for Harvey, there’s a change in flight clearance procedures.

“In those cases, we work through the ‘air boss’ to make sure we don’t interfere with search and rescue operations,” said Bitzko, referring to local safety officials.

Ezzell, a tiny Texas community served by Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative, was one of the first towns that Harvey hit, was out of power the longest, more than 50 hours.

The Gonzales-based co-op hired a contractor to fly a drone in that location because power could be restored to a large number of meters at once, said Tammy Thompson, corporate communications and public relations manager.

“Had we not used a drone, it definitely would have taken longer to assess and repair the damage. We would have had to wait for either the vegetation to be removed or the water to recede, then inspect the conditions and return with the correct materials,” said Thompson.

“Using the technology saved us time and helped us be prepared to restore power without delay as soon we had a clear path into the area.”

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