Innovators in Technology Series

A Drone Pilot's Perspective: Interview with Charles Winfree, Aviation Unmanned

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

While we often talk about what drones can do, we often do not think about what the drone pilot experiences, particularly in a time of rapid step changes in technology. Welcome to an interview with Charles Winfree, Aviation Unmanned ( who discusses the challenges and opportunities of using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

What we do: We conduct inspections and surveys with UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems). We are concentrated more on critical infrastructure inspections (oil/gas, utility, cellular, rail, road/bridges).

Experience: Our company has thousands of hours with UAS (all tiers/sizes). Significant previous military experience with experience in beyond line of sight operations.

Benefits: Benefits of using UAS for inspection and survey are possibly: lower cost, quicker products, safer inspections (verticals), ability to get where other equipment can't reach. Current/potential breakthroughs: gas leak detection, thermal/heat loss inspections, drone survey, post disaster damage assessments, agriculture health analysis, atmospheric sampling, in-service flare stack inspections …

We have multi-rotor UAS and fixed wing UAS. With the current regulations (14CFR, Part 107) or our 333 Exemption, we are limited to Line of Sight (LOS) operations at below 400' unless we pursue, and are approved, a waiver. This means that our fixed wing aircraft that are more suitable to longer range/endurance missions (6-8 hrs) and are capable of flying at altitude in excess of 15000' are not used. Fixed wing systems are better for long range and endurance missions (Right of Way, ISR …).

We do not design and build UAS, but we have a close relationship with Martin UAV who manufactures larger, fixed wing aircraft for persistent surveillance operations.

On the multi-rotor front, we use Aeryon SkyRanger, DJI Matrice 600 Pro w/ RTK, and DJI Matrice 100 systems to accomplish close inspections (high resolution stills and video, multispectral, thermal).

The main advantage of multi-rotor drones are the ability to take off and land in very tight spaces and the ability to position the UAS very close to the object requiring inspection. They are also very transportable. Our current multi-rotor fleet has Real Time Kinematics (RTK) allowing for extremely accurate station keeping (sub 2 CM) and very low probability of interference. We have UAS capable of operating in 55 knot winds while weighing less than 7 lbs. We can carry payloads up to 13 lbs to allow for a variety of different payloads (LIDAR, CORONA, Laser Methane Gas Detector, MultiSpectral, OGI …).

Challenges with collecting drone data is the current regulations. We use several risk mitigation techniques when flying over our customer's infrastructure and use very capable equipment that can have a single failure and still fly. All of our operators are actually FAA-certificated pilots and we fly manned aircraft often giving us a real appreciation of the legal use of UAS. We have to be careful to not overfly non-participating parties while performing inspection, only fly in the day, in uncontrolled airspace, below 400', LOS … You can see that it takes a high degree of planning to work within the rules and still get the job done efficiently. We believe we are better and have more experience than other companies. We also have multiple COAs approved by the FAA and will be perusing waivers for some of the above restrictions this year for certain utility inspections.

New uses are varied to bridge inspections, utility inspections, tank inspections (internal and external), emergency response, flare-stack inspections, survey … Nearly anything that only helicopters used to do from a localized standpoint, UAS can do cheaper with more clarity. New sensors are being developed all the time for specific uses and UAS are being modified or developed to carry the best sensors for the duration required.

All planning starts with a detailed Scope of Work. What exactly does the customer require to be done. Specific deliverable dictates the sensor and UAS required for the job!

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