BGE Furthers Their Legacy of Innovation Using Measure Ground Control

Oct 19, 2021 3:23:44 PM  |  0 Comments

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Like many companies, BGE is continually looking for innovative ways to deliver better service to customers. Founded over 200 years ago as The Gas Light Company of Baltimore, BGE was the nation’s first gas provider, tasked with lighting the streets of the historic city—a feat they completed in 1890. Ever since then, BGE has stayed on the forefront of technology, always searching for new ways to deliver energy reliably and safely.

Today, BGE is Maryland’s largest electricity provider with more than 1.2 million residential electric customers. Though the company founders couldn’t have possibly imagined the use of drones to bring energy to customers, BGE saw an opportunity to extend their legacy of innovation even further.

Building a Formal Program

Like many organizations that are open to using innovative technology, BGE had experimented with drones for certain use cases, but never created a formal program. Anirudh “AP” Paduru, Key Manager of Smart Grid Innovation at BGE, recognized the need to implement a more holistic approach, starting with identifying problems and challenges that drones could potentially solve. 

“We looked at every inspection that we do, from transmission and distribution to vegetation management—any use case where someone needs to gather visual data and decide what needs to be done,” says Paduru. “We quickly found many applications for drones across our organization. For example, during a transmission tower inspection, a technician might be looking through binoculars 300 feet into the air to make a decision. But what if they could use a drone to look closely at tower equipment and make a more informed decision? 

“Other inspections require a worker to harness themselves and climb on something, which always poses a safety hazard. We realized that drones could eliminate such issues without jeopardizing safety measures. We started off with four or five applications like that to build the business case.”

Once Paduru received approval from leadership to build a formal program, he charted a roadmap of milestones and maturity levels that BGE needed to hit over the next three years. If they were able to achieve those benefits in the specified timeframe, they were on the right track and ready to invest more to get the next set of benefits.

One of the first questions that BGE leadership asked was, how would the team be structured? Early on, Paduru identified Andrew McCauley as a natural fit for leading the program, given his extensive experience in control room operations and procedures. “Andy jumped in right away, helping us build the program to where it is today,” Paduru relates.

Before leading BGE’s drone program, McCauley spent six years in Transmission Operation Support, helping to train and support the control room staff for bulk power operations. This involved writing procedures and providing training for transmission control operators—aspects of McCauley’s job that made him the perfect choice to build a drone department from the ground up.

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A Customer-Focused Investment in Drones

In the energy industry, drone programs can take years of planning to get to full implementation and efficacy, and BGE’s was no different. According to McCauley, there are three reasons energy companies need to take their time investing in new programs:

  • Regulations
  • Compliance requirements
  • Fixed costs

With his background in procedures and training, navigating regulation and compliance requirements and training wasn’t a problem for McCauley. But fixed costs meant BGE couldn’t just go out and buy new drones for their program without proving there’d be customer value. “We have to keep customer-focused,” McCauley tells us. “If we make a big investment in drones or any other technology and it doesn’t quickly offset another cost, it would cause increased costs for customers, and we don’t want that.”

The solution for McCauley involved researching ways to quickly reduce operational and maintenance costs for BGE with drones. “If we want to increase the reliability of our system we need to make sure that we’re creative about how we do more with these fixed costs, and in many cases the answer is drones.” says McCauley.

Improving Operations, Holistically

“Our approach was to roll out drones holistically across BGE,” says McCauley. “That meant looking for ways to increase efficiency across substations, transmission, distribution, gas operations, real estate, vegetation management, environmental and more. “Once we decided that drones were useful, we tried to get the tools out to as many people as we could.”

Of course, McCauley still needed successful early projects to justify scaling the drone program across BGE. First up was rooftop inspections at a substation. 

“Safety is priority number one at these substations because they’re inherently dangerous—for example, workers can be hurt in falls.” McCauley tells us. “When we put people up there, we want to take the time and precautions to make sure they’re safe so they can do their job, which includes inspecting rooftops for anything that could be of concern, such as debris collecting in gutters or evidence of leaks. These manual inspections typically require lifts or ladders, roping off parameters around the roofs for safety and they take a lot of time. With drones, we’re able to get eyes on top of that roof without putting ourselves or our operators into higher-risk scenarios.”

But how does that add to customer value without adding to customer cost? “Drones reduced the amount of people hours that were associated with each one of our substation rooftop inspections,” according to McCauley. “While we had been doing those assessments yearly, we’re now able to do them quarterly.”

Anirudh “AP” Paduru adds some context: “We don't see drones as a complete shift in the way we do things. Overhauling all of our protocols and workflows would be disruptive—instead, drones are just another way to make things safer and faster for our workers. For a system operator that’s responsible for inspecting a certain line, or performing a certain action after considering the visual cues, drones are a natural extension of their toolkit—a way to enhance their safety and perform their job quicker. At the end of the day, it’s just another tool on the truck.”

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Scaling with Measure

With more frequent inspections comes more data about BGE systems and infrastructure. And more data means new data management needs. McCauley realized the need for a robust solution for managing and organizing their drone program. That’s why they turned to the Measure Ground Control platform to quickly expand the program throughout their organization.

“Early on, we tracked things manually, but as we began to scale our program, handwritten logs weren't really doable,” McCauley says. “We worked with another fleet management software for a year, but we weren’t really happy with them due to their odd work flows and less intuitive flight screens. So we switched to Measure.”

Two years in, BGE’s drone program has approximately 25 users across the company and continues to grow. McCauley is looking to potentially scale to over a hundred Drone Qualified Employees (DQEs) within the next few years—a testament to McCauley’s vision paired with Measure’s holistic software solutions that enable quick training of new DQEs.

“We looked at every big name that’s out there and what we liked about Measure was that it was very all-encompassing and that they’re integrators,” McCauley tells us. “We liked that we had the ability to plan missions, track our fleet including how equipment is aging, maintenance and more. Specifically, Measure has an API, Azure (Blob Storage) Integration, LAANC, PIX4D just to name a few.”

Flight Planning and Automation

When you’re operating a fleet of 25 drone pilots—and growing—you have to know who’s flying what, where, when, why and what data they’re capturing. That’s why McCauley and BGE make frequent use of Measure’s mission planning and automation features

“We just finished up a hundred miles of right-away inspection using that feature,” McCauley tells us. “Using Measure Ground Control’s automation, we could set up our planned route and let the app do the work rather than manually controlling that entire distance. We just had to monitor everything to ensure the flight went smoothly, which it did.”

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Measure Makes It Easy to Train Employees

McCauley wants to stress that most BGE drone operators aren’t full-time drone operators. Rather, they’re employees who are trained and certified to fly drones. It gives maintenance employees the freedom to do their own inspections as they normally would without having to schedule around a dedicated pilot’s schedule, which in turn means less downtime for customers. In that way, a drone is like any other tool on the truck or in their tool box, just a lot more advanced.

Measure supports that by making it easier for employees to pilot their drones and collect the data they need. They can use internal checklists to get cleared for flight (which ensures the always important element of compliance), fly directly through the Measure app, and know that their data will automatically end up in the right place at the end of the flight.

“With Measure, we get to track our Drone Qualified Employees as we expand, because we’re just regular people flying drones—we’re not traditional drone pilots that are ingrained in FAA regulations or the latest drone technology,” says McCauley. “Measure enables us to train the average person and bring them into the drone space. It’s our way to merge the FAA and drones to the utility. It gave us a common application for a lot of what we needed—and complete compliance.”

By the time DQEs are sent out to the field, they’re well familiar with Measure Ground Control. In fact, Measure is baked into BGE’s Flight School on day one. “The first day of flight school we tell our employees, ‘Here’s a drone, and here’s our flight application,’ and we go really in-depth,” says McCauley. “People come out after those four to five days very comfortable with how to fly, even though 95% of them have never even touched a drone before, and it’s because Measure makes it so easy.”

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Drones and Baltimore’s Waterways

Baltimore certainly isn’t the only major American city to have its fair share of waterways, but it’s still a unique challenge for BGE to navigate. 

“We have about 48 waterways that we wanted to mark because we’ve had issues in the past with sailboats,” McCauley explains. “Even though our power lines are marked according to regulations and appear on nautical charts, sometimes people don’t pay attention. It’s rare, but the worst case scenario is electrocution, and we never want to see that happen.”

To manually mark those waterways would traditionally involve putting a person on a bucket truck on a moving barge. It’s a slow, tedious and expensive process. By using drones instead, BGE was able to mark 16 waterways in 2021 and reduce the cost of that process by almost 80%.

McCauley has also been able to use drones in a process known as “pulling wire” across waterways. “You attach a jet line and use a drone to pull wire across the waterway to run power,” he tells us. “We recently had a pull of about 2,000 feet. By using a drone, we didn’t have to get a boat involved, which saved us $5,000.”

Sometimes, it’s difficult to pull those wires across terrain that doesn’t involve waterways. For hilly areas, this required employees to physically navigate areas. “Sometimes we’d have to take a slingshot attached to something kind of like a tennis ball and shoot the cord across—it doesn’t really work very well, but we can’t tell someone that they’re going to be without power because we can’t cross something. We try to avoid bringing a helicopter in because they’re disruptive and expensive, but drones are perfect.”

A Partner in Measure

With his background in processes, Andrew McCauley is always interested in how to make things easier for himself and fellow employees. And with Measure, he feels he’s found a partner that wants the same. 

“Measure has been very open with how we use Ground Control,” he tells us. “They want to know how we use the product. We might be a more diverse client in that we do more than site monitoring or one specific thing, and they respond really well to it.”

“I’ll call them on a problem and say, ‘Hey, we’re running a hundred miles of inspection, I have this issue,’ and they’ll listen and learn more about why or how the current processes don’t work for us, go into their systems, and make a change or an update to make the work easier for my team.”

Building Excitement in the Workforce

Over the last few years, the BGE drone program has expanded to include many more applications within the organization. “Andy investigates every single use case himself to ensure that the drones can add value,” Paduru shares. “The first value we look at is, is it going to make the job safer? Is it going to make it cheaper and efficient? And are we going to extract any more benefits than today? Once we answer those questions, and the leadership is aligned, we start deploying drones in that space.”

​​According to Paduru, one of the biggest benefits is that drones created excitement amongst the BGE workforce. “For somebody who's doing the same routine thing, we just gave them a toy—one they can actually use for work,” shares Paduru. “That created excitement, and once they started thinking beyond their routine, that's where we saw the spark happening. Our Drone Qualified Employees started innovating beyond their use case, finding new ways of applying the technology. That made a huge impact on our workforce development.”

Drones have saved BGE hundreds of thousands of dollars across multiple use cases. “During the first two to three years, you see a huge benefit coming in,” shares Paduru. “After that, the cost savings become normalized because your process has changed to merge with the drones, making the cost savings permanent. As a responsible utility, we’re always looking for ways to save resources and pass savings on to customers.

But that’s not the end of the story. Paduru sees drones and other emerging technologies as continuing to gain adoption among forward-thinking organizations like BGE. “Besides enabling safer and more efficient work, drones are creating a massive data pool for us,” he relates. “We’re collecting a massive amount of data that was previously super expensive or impossible to collect. Now we’re able to collect information on hundreds of thousands of poles, and we’re looking at investing more into data analytics and artificial intelligence that will help us think even further than today. It's the big unknown, but we’re very interested to see what kind of insights it will reveal for us in the future.”

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