Spies in the sky, unmanned aerial vehicles or drones have long been used in military and special operation missions. The technology has become a hobby for some and even businesses are looking for ways to use it.
Here at News On 6, we were among the first in Tulsa to use it for news gathering. Now, an Oklahoma electric provider is ready to launch drones across the grid, to help you keep your power on after severe weather.
Oklahoma's wind and ice storms can leave families without power and crews to brave the elements to restore it.
"There's ice building up all over your tools," says Will Clay, an Apprentice Lineman. "You might show up and there's 15 poles down. We'll work day in day out until it's completed."
Now, one utility co-op in Stillwater believes it has found a better and safer way to maintain and respond to those outages.
"We've been monitoring the technology for several years," said CREC's CEO David Swank.
Central Rural Electric Cooperative has added an Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or drone to its fleet of utility trucks.
"The drone provides opportunities to go places in a time frame that we've never seen before and what that means is reducing outage times and reducing costs, increasing reliability, things that matter most to our customers."
Outfitted with iPads and high tech cameras, an ATV acts as the drone's base.
"Everything in here is basically set up where we can take it off real quick," said Jay Gault, Facilities Coordinator. "We can load a transmitter in the back of the unit."
Once a crew drives out to a line, they can launch the drone for a bird's eye view, saving them time and possibly their lives.
"We have nearly 4,500 to 5,000 miles of line so when you think how long that takes for a lineman to drive out that line, especially when you look at where our lines are located, private right-a-ways, dirt roads, the conditions are not always favorable," Swank said.
Instead, the drone can hover over the line while analysts back in the systems operation center monitor the video footage live. They can even manually control the camera.
"It's just opens up a whole host of different applications that we haven't thought about before," said Jamie Jacob, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at OSU.
CREC is working with Jacobs and his students at the Unmanned Systems Research Institute at OSU.
"One of the things we're testing and developing is systems that avoid obstacle avoidance," Jacob said.
The students evaluate the different sensors and cameras on the drone with the hopes of making it safer while inspecting a line.
"Even though the pilot is telling the vehicle to fly into a tower or into a line it's able to sense 'oh, there's something here, I need to stop,'" Jacob said.
The company is waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration to approve an exemption to allow them to use the drones commercially. Until that happens, they'll continue testing the benefits of a drone.
"We had an outage not too long ago that was a 10 hour outage, we believe an outage of that magnitude could potentially be narrowed down to a two to five hour outage," Swank said.
Osage SkyNews 6 and Drone 6 pilot, Will Kavanagh said he sees another benefit.
“Right now, utility companies go out and survey power lines twice a year for maintenance and upkeep issues using helicopters, which is very expensive. Now, with the drone and real time video, they’re going to be able to dramatically reduce that expense, hopefully passing that along to the customers,” he said.
The potential of the drone shows that with this technology at its fingertips, the sky could be the limit for the utility industry.
"I've always wanted to have a job to go play with drones all day," Clay said. "I see a big future in it."
The Stillwater co-op is expecting the FAA to grant it an exemption sometime this summer to operate its drone full time.