UAV-ReconDusty Birge, CEO of UAV-Recon, is both a manned aircraft and commercial sUAS pilot. His company, with a team of nearly 200 Journeymen, specializes in maintenance optimization with utility companies wanting more affordable pole & tower inspections. They created a proprietary software, V.O.L.T™, which drastically reduces the inspection time of aerial imagery, known to be the fastest method in the utility industry. UAV-Recon has accumulated nearly 900 utility flight hours and 3600 flights on the Kittyhawk platform.

Dusty, welcome to Kittyhawk Q&A. You have an interesting background. How did it lead to drones?

I learned utility maintenance practices in prior career roles, where utility substation maintenance and repair was my interest. I enjoy solving problems, so I started exploring which maintenance efforts could be optimized with uncrewed craft. I had no prior UAS background and consider the UAS as just another tool. Although flying quadcopters is fun, it doesn’t compare to being in an airplane!

How did UAV-Recon come about?

I know how to take care of a customer; I treat them as I would want to be treated. I knew that if I could keep solving problems, things would fall into place. I started UAV Recon after I left GE, and began making sales calls!

Many operators buy a drone and search for ways to make money. My goal was to analyze problems I knew existed and figure out how to use a better tool to fix them. I knew what I was solving before I bought a drone, I just didn’t know the refined workflow.

Tell us about your business and how drones are at the center or your operations

98% of our work is utility related consisting of both substation & powerline inspection maintenance optimization. We fly all day, every day until a project is completed, typically consisting of 300–500 structures. Although we have processed over 250,000 images of inspection imagery through V.O.L.T™, daily flight operations is what drives our revenue.

Our main needs consist of recording flight conditions, airspace checks, and asset management. We started with another platform in the beginning, but Kittyhawk was more responsive to our needs. We provided Kittyhawk criteria needed for our utility operations, and things were implemented in the next update. I hadn’t experienced such a quick and personal touch with a software company…so we switched and haven’t looked back. The Kittyhawk app has more features than we need, and it’s affordable.

Can you explain VOLT and its benefits to your customers?

V.O.L.T™ is a US-based solution to manage and process the imagery from powerline and substation inspections. If you’re only capturing photos of the advisories you see while flying, you’re missing out on a lot more than you think. The glare alone on the screen will inhibit a clear and detailed inspection. Capturing all the data, allows clients to double-check the inspection, reference at a later time, and allow additional team members to use the data in other manners. Legally, it’s beneficial to have documented condition, good or bad, vs the operator absorbing this risk. Also, how many UAS pilots are technically capable of inspecting electrical infrastructure to the degree the utility will accept? We capture data of every pole, regardless of its condition.

In every trial and case study we’ve done, we’ve proven to provide a better overall inspection, more affordable, with the fastest data review. All V.O.L.T™ inspection data is processed and returned to the client in less than 12 days, regardless of data size. Our largest project was over 70,000 images and we returned to the client in 10 days — inspected, categorized, and decision-ready.

Tell us about your fleet and how Kittyhawk keeps all your operations safe and compliant.

We use mostly DJI equipment, and Kittyhawk syncs directly and is accessible on tablet and iPhone.

The main features we use in the Kittyhawk app are for checking airspace, checklist recording, weather observations, and maintenance tracking. There seem to be new features each time we log in and the tool just works really well for what we use it for.

We even had an upset resident on one of our operations, who called the police AND our customer! We were able to pull up everything we needed in Kittyhawk to cover our bases and earned a compliment from the county police department on our documentation and recording practices. The customer appreciated our process and we were awarded another project right after that one.

What is your outlook for drones integrating into Utility workflows? How do you see your company evolving with it?

‘Most’ utilities don’t have the personnel to implement sUAS inspections for large-scale operations (500+ structures), in short time frames. They are continually tasked with outage and maintenance repairs which many times are weather driven and on short notice. Utilities will continue to implement UAS programs, but I believe it will be focused on small-scale inspections, weather-related outages, and isolated inspections; similar to the model they use for pole testing.

I believe a large portion of the market will continue outsourcing service contracts to local ‘specialist’ organizations who provide superior service, availability, and a simple workflow. From what we’ve seen in the utility market, franchises & national pilot networks are too generalized and don’t actually understand the market, which is why most have burned through VC money and changed strategies multiple times. They work in other markets but haven’t seen the quality in the utility space. Inspecting a substation is not simple, and just because you have a drone doesn’t mean you’re qualified. The companies who pick a ‘niche’ and stick with it will do the best. Also, who doesn’t prefer local service?!

We were profitable our first year in business because we kept the focus narrow and specialized. Some utility clients are pursuing ‘community solar’ initiatives, so we vertically integrated a solar inspection service making our value proposition more turn-key. Keep it simple. If it’s not simple, make it.

Going forward, I intend to keep our focus narrow, take care of the customer, and be excellent in our niche. We are starting to open up our V.O.L.T™ service to other drone companies to use, so that will be our growth effort for the foreseeable future. We are also seeking an acquisition partner when we find the right match.

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