NESI-SES, a partnership between Oklahoma State University and Central Electric Cooperative, is testing unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, for utility use. (Photo courtesy Central Electric Cooperative)
NESI-SES, a partnership between Oklahoma State University and Central Electric Cooperative, is testing unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, for utility use. (Photo courtesy Central Electric Cooperative)

When a co-op that sees a bright future for drones teams up with a university program led by a drone expert, you have a match made in heaven.

That’s an apt description of the partnership between Central Electric Cooperative and nearby Oklahoma State University (OSU).

“I see a tremendous opportunity with the use of drones. I think the technology is going to continue to develop over time,” says Hunter Robinson, executive vice president of business development and operations at the Stillwater, Okla., co-op. “There are uses that we don’t even know yet.”

Perhaps not for long, though, as Central Electric and OSU work together.

“They have a team of students who will develop products. They’ll test them internally and, through the research aspect, work with us. We’ll go out together and test it in the field,” Robinson says. “That’s beneficial to the students and to Central. A lot of times, students may work on things that do not have true applicable purposes. This allows students to create targeted tools that have real-world application.”

The partnership’s foundation goes back five years, when the co-op engaged the university on research in the energy sector. The school had created the National Energy Solutions Institute, or NESI. The co-op had created a business unit called the Smart Energy Source (SES).

David Swank, Central Electric’s CEO, got to thinking.

“We really felt that the missing link in the word ‘NESI’ was ‘How do we get solutions into the industry?’ We wanted to focus with them on how to turn viable research into solutions,” Swank says.

That was the start of NESI-SES Association, which focuses on energy solutions. Together with partners that include CoBank and the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives, Swank says the association strives to “take technologies like drones and put that into a solution for the energy sector.”

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A key player in that effort is Jamey D. Jacob, OSU professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and a noted drone researcher. Jacob focuses on using new technology to solve problems both in the near term and long term.

“We want to be able to say, ‘What do we need to develop? What do we need to integrate beyond terms of technology or software to help solve the problem?’” Jacob says. “That’s where Central comes in—to be able to say, ‘Here’s a problem that we have. We’d like to explore using unmanned aircraft, or drones, to be able to solve this problem. How can you help us do that?’”

It’s a welcome challenge for the eager young minds he leads.

“Students don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know that a solution may be impossible, and because of that, they’ll go out and figure out a way to do it,” Jacob says.

“It’s been great working with them because they are very forward-seeing,” Jacob says of Central Electric, adding that the co-op is willing “to make the investment in terms of resources and personnel.”

It’s easy to see why.

Swank, a 25-year utility veteran, is a big believer in drones.

Oklahoma State Uuniversity students have welcomed the specific co-op challenges posed by Central Electric in the drone program. (Photo courtesy Central Electric Cooperative)
Oklahoma State University students have welcomed the specific challenges posed by Central Electric. (Photo courtesy Central Electric Cooperative)

“At the end of the day, for our industry it’s one of the biggest game-changing things we’ve seen in quite some time,” Swank says. “To me, it’s not a matter of if it can lower costs; it’s a matter of when and how we leverage it to do so.”

Federal legislation signed in late July should help move the process along. The new law makes it easier for utilities to apply for a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) permit to operate drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), and expands on earlier FAA commercial- use regulations, giving special allowances to utilities.

But Swank, Robinson, and Jacob realize a lot of work is yet to be done.

“There’s still a long way to go to where we want to be in using these systems in the utility industry,” Jacob says.

For example, utility pole inspections. Drones, he notes, can help “under very limited conditions.”

“This doesn’t get us to where we want to be with remote inspections—to be able to push a button in headquarters and have it take off and start doing flying inspections.”

After an April storm, Central Electric was unable to get a drone to fly, and Robinson says members felt the impact.

“We had a line down and a pole broken in the middle of a two-mile line section where it’s just basically a swamp. We couldn’t get any type of equipment in there,” Robinson says. “We had to walk in and walk back—and there are hazards associated with that.”

Had a drone been available, Robinson believes it would have been a different story.

“We know we could have saved two to three hours of just assessing the situation.”

 

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