Idaho Power Co., an electric utility serving over 500,000 customers in Idaho and Oregon, recently received a Section 333 exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for what the agency calls ‘low-altitude environmental research and monitoring.’ With the go-ahead to commercially operate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), the utility is ready to battle some unforgiving terrain during this year's salmon spawning season.
Phillip Groves, who has served for the past 24 years as senior biologist of Idaho Power’s environmental department, tells Unmanned Aerial Online that drones have been on the utility’s radar for quite some time – since the late 1990s, in fact.
Idaho Power’s environmental department monitors the activity of salmon spawning in parts of the Snake River of Hells Canyon, where the terrain is “not very hospitable” and the weather and crosswinds can be unpredictable, according to Groves. Therefore, navigating manned aircraft through the rocky terrain can be challenging and sometimes life-threatening.
He explains that another organization’s non-fatal helicopter crash at a nearby river motivated Idaho Power to start thinking along the lines of unmanned aircraft in the 90s, but the technology was not “up to snuff” at that point.
It was a fatal helicopter crash in 2010 that served as a “jarring wakeup call,” he says. Idaho Fish and Game suffered the loss of two biologists, as well as the helicopter pilot, when doing a similar type of survey to that of Idaho Power.
Idaho Power then approached other stakeholders, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), to see who was on board with the idea to start using unmanned aircraft. According to Groves, the response was positive.
“Safety was the driver for this whole movement,” Groves explains, referring to steering away from the use of helicopters for the utility’s salmon spawning surveys.
For the past couple of years, Idaho Power has teamed with the University of Alaska Fairbanks to conduct UAS operations complementary to the helicopter work. The university is the site of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, which runs the Pan Pacific UAS Test Range Complex, one of the six FAA-selected UAS test sites.
Now, through the exemption, Groves says, Idaho Power is free to independently fly the MikroKopter hexacopter – provided that it operates within the parameters of the blanket Certificate of Waiver or Authorization included in the exemption: within the visual line of sight (VLOS), in the daylight hours and under 200 feet in altitude.
Because these UAS surveys have typically taken place at 75-125 feet above the river, the height restriction poses no problem. And, because the team flies in “very specific, individual sites on the river” during the daytime, Groves explains, beyond-VLOS or nighttime flights are not necessary.
Idaho Power’s UAS operations without the University of Alaska will be inaugurated this coming fall, as peak spawning season takes place during the last week of October through the first two weeks of November.
In accordance with a “randomized, proportional sampling design” of pre-selected sites, Groves explains, the UAS is flown autonomously, via a ground control station, through waypoints and at a locked elevation along the larger spawning sites.
It will sometimes be flown manually over short distances, and, considering the rocky terrain and presence of drone-loathing ospreys, he says, the operator makes sure to keep his hands on the controls during any type of flight.
Even though most of the monitoring takes place in a remote location, Hells Canyon includes public, recreational areas with people (who have marveled at the drone technology, Groves notes), and the operations include an extensive pre-flight check.
After the UAS flights, Groves and another biologist take the video footage, which is collected by a GoPro, or the still footage, collected by a smaller Pentax camera, and send it through an HD TV, where they assess the data by counting the number of salmon redds – “light-colored, oval patches” of spawning nests roughly the size of a standard bed, he explains.
Along with invaluable safety benefits, the UAS can provide more accurate data due to its ability to hover closely over an area, but a helicopter did, however, allow the team to fly over an entire river for an extended period – as opposed to the MikroKopter, which has a flight time of 15-20 minutes, Groves notes.
“We lose a little bit of accuracy in our total river estimate,” he says, explaining that the helicopter gives a “full census,” as opposed to flying the UAS over individual sites and then combining data to make an estimate.
But the beauty of the unmanned aircraft, he explains, is that it allows for more collaboration during the data-analysis process: The utility can share the footage with, for example, the FWS, and compare notes.
“In the past, it’s been my word against anyone else’s word,” Groves says, referring to his years of counting the salmon redds from the helicopter.
Now, he says, “They can see exactly what we see.”
The FWS is even in the process of developing its own UAS, which will then be used in collaboration with Idaho Power in order to cover more sites and compile more data.
It’s been a long time coming, but thanks to the commercial exemption, this year will mark the first time that Groves and his team will have completely eliminated the use of helicopters from their data collection, the industry veteran says.
Photos courtesy of Idaho Power: University of Alaska contractors and Idaho Power employees before a survey; Groves with the hexacopter; the MikroKopter UAS in flight