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For the right mission, drones are a low-cost, safe, effective choice.

The FAA received its first application for a commercial unmanned aircraft system (UAS, or drone) in 2006. Fifteen years later, there are nearly 350,000 commercial drones registered with the agency.

Even as the still-developing UAS industry deals with regulatory challenges and battery-imposed limits on payload and flight time, drones are flying many missions formerly handled by helicopters. To compete, helicopter operators must decide whether to add drones to their operations.

Earlier this year, HAI held a webinar, “Why You Might (Should) Have Drones in Your Future,” featuring a half dozen helicopter operators and drone specialists reflecting on their lessons learned when adding UAS to their helicopter operations.

James Viola, president and CEO of HAI, kicked off the program, saying, “It makes sense for helicopter operators to integrate unmanned aircraft systems into their businesses. It is going to make those businesses even more versatile and can even save them and their customers money.”

The Tipping Point

“The decision to integrate UASs—not replace helicopters completely but integrate them into operations—that decision is here today,” said Scott Burgess during the webinar. Burgess is an associate professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) and chief of operations in the Department of Flight at ERAU’s Worldwide Campus.

Engineers use a DJI Mavic Pro drone to inspect solar panels near Pilsen, Czech Republic. (Shutterstock/Peteri photo)

“The proliferation of drones into the aviation industry has really been on the uptake in the last few years,” Burgess said. “It’s amazing to see the number of commercial operations where drones are utilized. Drones or remotely piloted aircraft will continue to creep into traditional helicopter mission sets.”

While battery capacity limits payloads and flight times, many missions that focus on acquiring data, such as photography, surveillance, inspection, and mapping, are seeing an increasing use of drones.

However, HAI is concerned that helicopter operators aren’t showing much enthusiasm for drones. More than 60% of respondents to a recent survey of helicopter operators said they don’t anticipate incorporating any UAS missions into their operations or services in the next year.

Turning away from drones “may not be the best decision to make unless you just want to give up that mission set in your organization,” Burgess said. He went on to stress that the UAS industry is just getting started. The FAA rule permitting operations over people and at night without special waivers took effect in April 2021, and Burgess expects beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), large cargo-carrying, and passenger transport operations by remotely piloted vehicles to one day be routine.

Finding Efficiencies

When Mark Gibson, president of Timberland Helicopters in Ashland, Oregon, saw that UAS operators were beginning to compete with his company for jobs, he decided he had no choice but to get involved in UAS operations. Gibson has been in the helicopter business for 35 years, and his company, like many operators, provides a wide range of services—from tours and charters to firefighting and logging. He found that drones could capably handle the power-line, pipeline, and other utility patrol services that he provides with helicopters.

The first mission his company took on with drones was finding part numbers on suspect hardware on towers. “Land and facility surveys are probably more efficient with UASs [than with helicopters],” he told webinar attendees. His drones have also carried external loads and pulled a utility line over a short section of river.

Early on, Timberland didn’t have a focus for its UAS operations but instead was testing what it could accomplish in the UAS arena. “So we ended up with a whole building full of UAS products that, frankly, we probably didn’t really need,” Gibson said. He added that it was easy, however, to justify the expense of this experiment because UAS equipment costs so much less than certificated aircraft and related components.

Another lesson learned from Timberland’s experience is that UAS operations should be conducted with the same rigor as those using helicopters. After the company had crashed a UAS, resulting in the destruction of the aircraft but no injuries, “we stepped back and said, ‘We really need to look at this as just another segment of our manned aviation program,’ ” Gibson said.

The company response to the crash was to implement better pilot training, perform preflight risk assessments and post-flight debriefs, and increase the maintenance regimen for its UASs. Timberland made flight safety and quality control paramount in its UAS operations, just as it does for traditional aviation.

Timberland also teaches other drone operators how to comply with 14 CFR Part 107, the FAA’s rules for small UAS operations. With their background in helicopter operations, the company’s licensed pilots and instructors are able to provide new entrants to the field with a thorough understanding of aviation standards and best practices.

Improving Safety

Like any other organization investigating drone use, police departments must determine whether a UAS is the right tool for the job. They also have to navigate challenges such as public acceptance and bureaucratic obstacles.

Mark Colborn, a longtime law enforcement helicopter pilot who recently retired from full-time duty with the Dallas (Texas) Police Department (DPD) and who also serves on the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee, says the department first considered bringing a UAS into its aviation operations in 2015. But, Colborn told the HAI webinar participants, “in government, nothing ever happens fast.”

The DPD, however, has since renamed its Helicopter Unit the Air Support Unit and divided the unit into two squads, the Helicopter Squad and the UAS Squad. The DPD recruited four police officers from other units in the department to staff the UAS Squad full time. All four officers have remote pilot certificates and, along with a sergeant assigned to the unit, expect to begin operating the DPD’s 16 drones in October after receiving final approval from the city council.

One planned use for the UASs will be to monitor protests. Colborn sees drones as a safe and efficient platform that can help de-escalate a situation and increase officer safety. The FAA has granted a certificate of authorization to allow the unit’s drones to fly in the Dallas city airspace. In addition to monitoring public gatherings, the UASs will perform missions for the DPD’s SWAT unit as well as other city departments. However, Colborn points out that DPD policy forbids using the aircraft for surveillance purposes and says the department is working to gain public acceptance of the drones.

Proven Utility

A public energy utility that operates in 16 states, Dominion Energy began using UASs in 2015 to inspect transmission infrastructure in Virginia. Nate Robie, Dominion’s manager of unmanned systems, says the utility is now using drones in all operational segments, including nuclear, hydroelectric, and solar power generation, and in electric and natural gas distribution. Dominion has in-house drone capability, and it employs external vendors as well.

Once they had access to them, Dominion field technicians found multiple ways to use drones, and the company is looking forward to BVLOS operations when permitted. “That’s when you’ll see the most efficient use of UAS,” Robie said during the webinar.

The list of how Dominion uses drones is long and growing. Drones monitor the health of Dominion solar panels and the condition of its wind turbine blades. Some drones conduct indoor inspections while others perform external inspections, surveying, and mapping. Along electric transmission lines, drones are used to monitor the status of everything from the vegetation along the right-of-way and structures to the health of components such as insulators. The company is experimenting with sensors that can detect methane, which can indicate a natural gas leak.

Because the technology is so new, Robie says, one of the challenges is “proving the technology to ensure it’s finding exactly what we want during all of the various inspections.” Dominion personnel are being careful not to oversell drones but instead to continually ask, “Is a drone the right technology for the job?”

Drones have already proven their effectiveness for Dominion. Robie cites increased operational safety, efficiency, and lower inspection costs as the major benefits of drone integration. He compares the time required to erect scaffolding or deploy a bucket truck with the ease of launching a drone. “Sometimes it could take multiple days before we were able to get up and see those areas we’re looking to inspect. Now, we can get up there in a fairly short amount of time.”

BVLOS: The Game Changer

Dominion has been working with Virginia Tech’s Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) to test the use of drones in inspecting power lines. A designated FAA UAS test site since 2013, MAAP conducts research to support the safe integration of drones into the US National Airspace System. It’s often said drones will follow a crawl-walk-run development time line, and according to MAAP’s new director, Tombo Jones, they are now in the crawl stage.

Virginia Tech MAAP engineer Jeremy Spink (left) and undergrad intern Matthew Foran deliver a radar-equipped drone to its launch site during NASA tests of a system designed to enable a drone to autonomously detect and avoid other aircraft, a necessity for BVLOS operations. (Amy Robertson for Virginia Tech; reprinted with permission)

MAAP is also working with Wing, an Alphabet company and FAA-approved Part 135 operator for small-package delivery. Customers in Christiansburg, Virginia, can order coffee, meals, Girl Scout cookies, pharmacy products, and library books for delivery by Wing drones. These BVLOS deliveries are free, part of the FAA Beyond Program, which may someday lead to drones delivering parts to offshore oil rigs and transporting human organs for transplant surgery.

Of course, challenges remain for BVLOS drone operations. UASs operating beyond the visual range of their remote pilots must be able to detect and avoid other drones and aircraft, requiring licensed radio frequency spectrum, Jones says. But BVLOS operations will be a game changer.

“The drone operations we’re seeing today just barely scratch the surface of being able to conduct efficient operations, because they’re almost all line-of-sight operations,” Jones told the webinar audience, adding that achieving BVLOS capability will advance the drone industry’s reach. “That’s where things are going to open up and we’re going to see a much greater gain in efficiency with drone operations.”

A Shared Culture

Some of the strengths that helicopter operators bring to drone operations include their expertise in low-altitude aviation, maintenance, operational control, and handling external loads, says Jonathan Daniels, CEO of Praxis Aerospace Concepts International. Praxis is involved in drone development and testing, and Daniels has two decades of UAS experience in the US Department of Defense. He was named UAS special advisor to HAI’s Board of Directors in July 2021.

Helicopter operators also know how to do flight following and oversight, adds Daniels. “We’re used to operating our own centers and facilities, and that’s very useful for UAS work,” he said at the webinar, noting that only eight of more than 5,000 heliports are public-use facilities.

“As a former helicopter pilot myself, we’re used to being the unloved red-headed stepchildren and having to figure out our own ways to make things work,” he added. “That’s a great mentality and culture for us to move into UAS operations.”

Burgess says advancements in UAS technology will lead to autonomous air taxis in urban areas and delivery of larger-scale packages.

“If you pay attention to this industry, you can see how fast things are moving. The biggest thing that will hold us back is going to be the regulatory aspects,” he told event attendees. “I think the research and development will facilitate us being able to get there fast.”

Gibson said Timberland doesn’t want to lose business or dilute its crewed helicopter operations. But he knows that when a utility company looks to gather data from the air, it’s going to look for more efficient and less expensive options.

“No matter how you cut it, if a drone can do the job, it’s going to be a little bit more cost effective,” he said. As a matter of survival, a helicopter operator should look into drones. “If the company doesn’t have anyone in their organization who knows about UAS, that’s a perfect opportunity to partner with someone who does.”


  • David Hughes

    David Hughes has been writing about aviation for 40 years. As a US Air Force Reserve pilot, he flew the C-5 and C-141 and logged 20 years writing and editing at Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine. He then joined the FAA to write about NextGen and today is a freelance writer.

David Hughes

David Hughes

David Hughes has been writing about aviation for 40 years. As a US Air Force Reserve pilot, he flew the C-5 and C-141 and logged 20 years writing and editing at Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine. He then joined the FAA to write about NextGen and today is a freelance writer.