ComEd expands Drone Program with remotely piloted drones to enhance operations

Harnessing advanced technology to enhance operations, ComEd announced that, for the first time, its certified pilots will operate drones remotely from any location across northern Illinois. Using new Skydio Drone Dock technology, ComEd crews will test remote drone monitoring solutions that will enable safe, cost-effective on-site and on-demand surveillance capabilities without dispatching trucks of crews to perform in-person inspections.

“At ComEd we are always looking for ways to improve our customers’ experience and advance our storm recovery efforts. Smarter equipment monitoring is one way to proactively prevent outages and support overall grid performance,” said Terence Donnelly, president and COO of ComEd. “The expansion of our drone program builds upon the innovative work we have done over the last decade to strengthen and modernize our system.”

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates commercial drone operation, permits organizations like ComEd to request operational waivers that allow pilots to remotely operate drones without a visual line of sight. These operational waivers will allow FAA-certified ComEd pilots to use enhanced drones to support routine equipment inspection, enabling utility crews to focus on priority grid repair and improvements.

Remote monitoring by drone will support overall grid performance by increasing ComEd’s ability to rapidly inspect equipment throughout the electric company’s service territory. This will help reduce operations and maintenance costs, while helping identify potential problem areas and prevent power outages before they occur. Remote, off-site flying capabilities will also maximize ComEd’s drone pilots’ efforts by limiting the time they are physically needed in the field.

To support ComEd’s nation-leading resiliency, routine monitoring of equipment is crucial to ensuring all grid assets are operating as intended. ComEd uses drones in a variety of ways, including to inspect power lines and following storms to assess damage and enable crews to more quickly and efficiently restore power. Drone pilots regularly join frontline workers in the field to assist with line and equipment inspection. In 2022, ComEd also began using drones to support vegetation management.

The drones included in ComEd’s Drone Dock program will be equipped with a high-resolution camera and thermography tools. These features will allow the drones to capture extensive data, digital images and video from all angles of grid equipment, which will then be reviewed to help preemptively address future equipment failure based on equipment conditions and environmental factors.

The docking station, manufactured by Skydio, provides a remote housing unit and launch pad for the drones when not in use. Currently, the technology is installed at ComEd’s Chicago Training Center while ComEd pilots are trained to use the new technology; the installation of additional docks is expected later in 2023 at secure locations throughout ComEd’s service territory.

uAvionix help enhance FISO situational awareness in the UK - sUAS News - The Business of Drones
uAvionix help enhance FISO situational awareness in the UK – sUAS News – The Business of Drones

For decades commercial aviation has relied on highly regulated technology to enhance safety. Airlines and Business Aviation largely rely on certified avionics and Air Traffic Controllers (ATC) have long relied on certified IT systems layered on certified surveillance systems to safely separate traffic. These technologies are in continuous development, albeit subject to the most rigorous testing and safety standards, often guided by international standard-setting bodies.

In recent years, General Aviation (GA) pilots have seen an accelerated introduction of innovative technology to help them fly more safely. Whether it be for pre-flight planning or in-flight navigation and traffic detection, software usually running on tablets can be found in most GA pilot’s flight bag.

Meanwhile, in the typical ATC tower at most small airfields in the UK and around the world, a time-traveller from the 1950s would feel right at home. For these airfields little has changed – radar is out of the question due to the significant costs of both the surveillance system itself and the tools required to visualize the data, so it’s eyeballs looking out the window, hand-written flight strips, and VHF radio. That advanced technology wave has, by and large, passed them by. Until now…….

17th December 2021 marked the day that the UK regulator (UK CAA) granted Flight Information Service Officers (FISOs) permission to use a Cooperative Surveillance Flight Information Display or FID. Rather than relying solely on pilot position reports and what FISOs could see out the window, the CAA has now allowed FISOs to supplement their situational awareness with traffic information displayed on an FID screen, much akin to the pilot using an EFB with a receiver.

Prior to this date, FISOs in the UK were not permitted to use technology of this nature for what the CAA regard as ‘Safety-Related Functions’, such as passing traffic information to pilots over the radio.

So, what changed the UK CAA’s mind?

Back in 2017/18, the CAA, in conjunction with their Electronic Conspicuity Working Group (ECWG), was looking to find ways to encourage GA pilots to adopt Electronic Conspicuity (EC) systems to improve detection of GA aircraft and help reduce the risk of mid-air collisions. The CAA announced that 1090Mhz ADS-B was their preferred EC system but there was no mandate for light GA aircraft to install ADS-B. Eventually, the ECWG spawned what is now CAP 1391, a radical regulation at the time that authorized low-power portable ADS-B transceivers. uAvionix quickly responded to this by introducing SkyEcho, a low-cost / low-power portable ADS-B In/Out transceiver which revolutionized the air-to-air visibility of general aviation in the UK. The unit quickly became the predominant CAP1391 device of choice by pilots in UK and Australia, where equivalent regulations were introduced. Interest in low-power portable ADS-B transceivers is now gaining ground elsewhere in the world as well.

UK studies had shown that the highest risk of GA mid-air collision is in the vicinity of airfields and the airfield circuit or traffic pattern. The introduction of CAP1391 immediately gained a significant adoption rate, which helped propel its popularity further as pilots were now able to see other (suitably equipped) traffic on their EFB

A proposal was made to ECWG arguing that enabling FISOs at GA airfields providing Aerodrome Flight Information Services (AFIS) to use these ADS-B position broadcasts would advance the Working Group’s aims of improving safety and provide further incentive for pilots to adopt ADS-B. Giving FISOs a traffic display showing an accurate presentation of the position of aircraft with ADS-B Out would enhance the FISO’s situational awareness. Permitting FISOs to pass traffic information to pilots based on this ADS-B data would improve the service FISOs provided to pilots.

The traffic display could help FISOs provide better information to pilots to assist them in avoiding airspace infringements and flight into terrain. Together, all of these would make GA safer. The challenge was to prove it, especially addressing concerns around the fact that the FISO would only see a partial traffic picture as aircraft without ADS-B Out would not show.

A trial for what was called at the time a ‘GA Airfield ATS ADS-B Traffic Display’ was developed and supported by the ECWG and CAA. The trial traffic display system was built on a uAvionix pingStation ADS-B ground receiver combined with Virtual Radar Server (VRS) software. 50 uAvionix SkyEcho portable ADS-B transceivers were employed as loaner devices to supplement the aircraft base already equipped with ADS-B Out. After substantial discussions with CAA ATS Inspectors, a formal trial safety case and safety plan were agreed upon.

Three airfield ATS units (City Airport (Manchester Barton), Chichester (Goodwood) Aerodrome & North Weald Airfield) were recruited as participants in the trial, who helped recruit owners of non-ADS-B equipped based aircraft to use the loan SkyEchos. The pingStations and VRS systems were set up and, after further individual airfield safety cases, system checks, operational procedures, and staff training were approved by the CAA, the trial ran for six months concluding at the end of August 2019. The ATS units provided daily online feedback throughout the trial, including documenting enlightening situations they had encountered.

The final trial report analyzed all the feedback and presented the evidence to the CAA. The feedback was extremely positive and FISOs fully endorsed the system.

“Having been a FISO for some 20 years it has been nothing but apositive. It enables me to provide a much better service as a FISOgiving me a tool to enhance my own situational awareness. …… Ican now confidently know where aircraft are and identify relevanttraffic information and assist pilots in avoiding conflict”

Fast forward two years to December 2021 and, accepting most of the recommendations from the trial report, the UK CAA has now defined regulations supporting ADS-B Traffic Displays, as what they now call a Flight Information Display or FID, publishing updates to the following documents:

  • CAP 670 Air Traffic Services Safety Requirements – Cooperative Surveillance Systems & Flight Information Displays
  • CAP 797 FISO Manual – Use of Surveillance Systems in Aerodrome Flight Information Service
  • CAP 1032 AFISO Licensing – Training for the use of a Flight Information Display

From CAP 797:

Basic functions of ATS surveillance systems in AFIS

In the absence of a ‘conventional’ ATS surveillance system [radar] and when approved by the CAA, the FID may be used to support the provision of AFIS in performing the following functions:

a) flight path monitoring of aircraft on final approach;

b) flight path monitoring of other aircraft in the vicinity of the aerodrome;

c) providing navigation assistance to VFR flights; and,

d) enhancing the provision of traffic information.

What is more, the CAA has made several mentions of the FID in their latest Draft Airspace Modernisation Strategy 2022–2040 Part 1: Strategic objectives and enablers (CAP 2298a).

So much for approvals. Now comes the task of bringing this technology to bear in the real world.

We have not rested on our laurels. Since the original trials, uAvionix has upgraded the ADS-B ground receivers to the pingStation3.

As well as being more robust, including an IP67 weatherproof housing, pingStation 3 provides simultaneous dual-band support for 978Mhz UAT and 1090Mhz. It follows DO-260B standard, utilizing an internal GPS to provide position plus precise message timestamping to support multilateration purposes.

Besides commonly used JSON output formats, commonly seen in commercial off-the-shelf systems, pingStation 3 offers support for the ASTERIX / CAT021 protocol, widely used in the ATM world as the output for ATS surveillance systems. With pingStation3, the sensor capability that was previously cost-prohibitive to smaller airports instantly changed the game.

The VRS software used in the trial was chosen because it was readily available and free! Although it does have a few suboptimal features and limitations for this particular application (for which it was not designed), there was no real alternative at that time as all approved systems were also cost-prohibitive. As FISO use of FIDs was not permitted then, there was no market for commercial software optimized for this application. One aim of the trial was, having gained regulatory approval, to encourage a market for software developed precisely for this FISO FID requirement. uAvionix is working with several partners such as 42Solutions, Plane Finder, and Cambridge Pixel to meet exactly this need. Watch this space!

There are further exciting developments coming too. The UK CAA has promised equivalent new approvals for use of FIDs in ATC. Airport Ground Movement Surveillance Radar or MLAT is far too expensive for most ATC units at the airport, so there is a keen interest in using alternatives. Using pingStation 3 as an alternative to ground radar is another application well suited to FIDs, both technically and economically, especially when ground vehicles are equipped with low cost / low power ADS-B devices on 1090MHz or 978MHz with very similar functionality to CAP1391 devices for aircraft. The safety benefits of integrating the airborne platform, airside ground vehicles, and the FISO on technology that communicates with each other are endless, especially when integrating other data into the receivers, such as FLARM, a technology predominantly used by gliders.

The leadership taken by the UK on expanding the safety case for ADS-B in a whole new direction could have positive implications around the world, especially in the ongoing discussion around the integration of all airspace users, including UAS…

In the meantime, let’s open the blinds for every FISO in the UK and quickly expand the safety benefits of situational awareness across all UK airfields.

U.S. Farms Embrace Drone Technology Benefits
U.S. Farms Embrace Drone Technology Benefits

Applanix and Hylio Enhance Agriculture

A Hylio AgroDrone treats a field of rice while a Hylio operator observes.

The amount of land and labor used on American farms has declined since the 1940s. Yet during the same period, agricultural output has nearly tripled, federal statistics show, because of one key factor: technology.

A main technological driver now boosting production in American agriculture is drones, which have enabled farms to increase crop yields while lowering pesticide use. The future of the agricultural industry, which recently celebrated National Farmers Day, lies in automating operations and adopting precision farming techniques, experts say.

Studies show that drones used in farming operations reduce costs. The average U.S. farmer using agricultural drones sees a return on investment of $12 per acre for corn, and $2 to $3 per acre for soybeans and wheat, according to research by the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“More farms are using drone technology and they are using better drone technology today than five years ago,” said Mohamed Mostafa, lead technical authority for mobile mapping for Applanix Corp., or Markham, Canada, which produces positioning and orientation systems for drones. “We have drones that fly longer times and have better cameras so you can see finer resolution on the ground.” Applanix is owned by software, hardware and services technology company Trimble.

Even small family-owned farms, which account for 90% of all U.S. farms, are integrating drones into their operations by contracting with service providers to deploy UAS for aerial mapping and crop spraying of fertilizer and pesticides.

With the average age of farmers in the United States rising to 57.5 years, drones are also helping to alleviate labor shortages and improving efficiency, said Louis Wasson, a senior extension associate at Mississippi State University and a drone instructor for USDA’s Wildlife Services.

“Drones save farmers a lot of time in not having to go out and spend time walking and looking at things,” Wasson said. “They can send the drone up and look at that precision spot. And you’re not spraying as much.”

Beyond Tractors and Crop Dusters

While farms have traditionally used tractors or crop dusters to spray crops with fertilizer and pesticides, that function is gradually being taken over by drones. Unmanned systems allow farmers to accurately pinpoint specific areas that need nutrients or protection from insects.

Tractors or crop dusters use a blanket approach to apply pesticides on entire fields, when only a portion of the crop may need applications of chemicals to control weeds, said Arthur Erickson, CEO and cofounder of Hylio, a Richmond, Texas-based company that produces agricultural drones.

“What tractors can’t do is spot treatment,” Erickson said. “Once the crop has started growing and it’s showing signs of fungus outbreak or some sort of weed outbreak in different sections of the field, you can’t go out there and isolate those spots and just spray that. You have to come in and spray everything—a shot-gun approach.”

This indiscriminate approach not only causes farmers to overspray pesticides, but it also carries health and environmental risks because of pesticide drift, the movement of pesticide dust or droplets through the air.

“Pesticides can flow into creeks and affect other living organizations,” Wasson said. “With spot spraying, you’re just spraying that individual location or area. You have more control where that chemical goes.”

Hylio’s AgroDrones reduce environmental spillover of pesticides because they allow farmers to target specific crop areas that need treatment. Each of the company’s three drones comes with high-definition video streaming, radar sensors that allow them to detect and avoid obstacles, and GPS modules capable of normal and RTK positioning.

  • The AG-110 has a 2.6-gallon tank and can cover a 15- to 25-foot swath width at 15 acres/hour
  • The AG-116 has a 4.2-gallon tank, and can cover a 25- to 30-foot swath width at 25-30 acres/hour
  • And the AG-122 has two 2.6-gallon tanks, a 25- to 30-foot swath width and covers 30 to 35 acres/hour.

The cost of the drones ranges from $20,000 for the AG-110 to $40,000 for the AG-122. While smaller farms may contract with a drone-spraying service to apply pesticides, larger operations might purchase a fleet of three or four drones.

“All of our drones can be used in fleet formation, but mostly people who utilize fleets are going for maximum coverage,” Erickson said.

Creating Precise Imagery

Before spraying crops, farmers need high-resolution images so they can hone in on sections of their crops that need attention. While farms have used satellite imagery since the 1970s, drones carrying cameras and sensors can provide more precise data about crops.

The APX-15 is commonly used as one of the board sets provided by Applanix for georeferencing UAV-collected survey data.

Satellites produce images using pixels that cover two feet at the smallest level, but drones can zoom down to a square inch and allow farmers to see individual plants, including an assessment of its health, maturity and irrigation needs, according to Mostafa of Applanix.

The positioning and orientation systems Applanix produce are sold to service providers that install them on drones and provide survey images to farmers. These images allow farmers to improve yields, determine when crops need watering and advise when crops should be harvested. “That information is not available with satellite images,” Mostafa said.

Applanix’s product, the APX, is a miniaturized version of the company’s original system, developed in 1990. The latest models, which are smaller, lighter and consume less power, are sold to service providers that offer imaging surveys for both small and large farms.

In the near future, Mostafa expects drones to link the growing process, sales, transportation and any logistics that need location-based information. “Supporting the planting, cultivation and harvesting operations of pretty much all crop categories—perishable or unperishable—the drones will take over in the sense of monitoring the health, growth, disease fighting and even the watering of all crops.”