Innovations in Geoscience Series

Extending the Reach of Drones: Interview with Jim Cieplak, Harris Corporation

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

Drones are currently being used in many applications, including pipeline and tank inspections, as well as methane leaks and seeps. Money is being saved. Resources are being discovered. But, behind the use of most drones and UAVs is the issue of safely and legally operating beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS). Welcome to an interview with Jim Cieplak, who talks to us today about his work with Harris Corporation and BVLOS solutions.

(Jim will be giving a presentation at the AAPG Drones and UAVs workshop, May 23-24 in Houston.)
What is your name and your relationship to UAVs and drones?

My name is Jim Cieplak and I am responsible for business development and strategy for Harris Corporation's Commercial UAS Solutions business. My background in aviation stretches over nearly 30 years helping to bring surveillance and air traffic management solutions to the National Airspace System (NAS). In addition, I am licensed both as a commercial pilot and a UAS pilot. In my current role, I work with customers to support deployment of UAS in their everyday business operations, with a particular focus on beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations.

What are current applications of UAVs and drones that you're involved with?

One of the most exciting aspects of my Harris job is that I get to work with pioneering companies at the forefront of using UAS in business operations. My first project was to explore the deployment of UAVs for inspection of the Alyeska Pipeline in Alaska. We were involved in determining the communications and navigation technologies that enable BVLOS operations in extreme conditions. Another ongoing project I support is the FAA-BNSF Railway Pathfinder program operating UAVs to perform railroad track inspection. Harris is the complete surveillance and detect-and-avoid (DAA) systems integrator for this BVLOS operation. I also work extensively with all seven FAA-designated UAS test sites as well as with the NASA UTM initiative, all of which are using Harris technologies in a variety of scenarios such as precision agriculture, high-voltage power line inspections, public safety, etc.

What are some of the new applications and uses?

Businesses are finding innovative new roles for UAS such as observation tools for tracking livestock or wildlife, monitoring environmental pollution, traffic patterns, etc. Clearly, UAVs are also going to have a growing role as a transportation technology — whether shipping medicine to remote locations, delivering packages to your door, or operating as flying taxis of the future. The level of experimentation we see is extraordinary.

How are drones and UAVs transforming the oil and gas industry, in your opinion?

Oil and gas companies have been at the forefront of UAS given their status as owners and operators of vast infrastructure spread across continents. Deploying UAVs to persistently monitor or inspect the operational and security conditions of energy infrastructure is becoming a core business operation. I believe that environmental monitoring with UAS, during all phases of energy production, will soon become a routine operation reflecting the role of the energy industry as the stewards of enormous natural resources. Deploying increasingly more sophisticated UAVs and sensors will also secure an important role for UAS in resource discovery and characterization. But we are only at the beginning of our industry emergence. I am confident that in the years ahead the energy industry will discover new ways to use UAVs in daily operations.

Please describe two or three of your own experiences? What did you learn?

BVLOS UAS operations integrate a wide range of technologies from a variety of engineering and applications fields. This often is a rather complex and unfamiliar territory for non-aviation customers. In particular, the expectations for the performance, reliability and safety of all systems related to UAS flight is exceptionally high. Harris has the unique breadth and depth of technology and operational expertise in the NAS that can be of great service to companies aiming to implement UAS. We know how to work with customers and the FAA to integrate the right mix of business and technological innovation. Another lesson I learned is that the benefits of deploying UAS is often bigger than what companies originally envision. At Harris, we often experience this as familiarity with the technology grows, operational experience deepens, and customers begin to imagine additional applications for UAS. This approach allows them to leverage existing investments in surveillance and communications systems, UAVs, pilots, etc., to do more tasks with less. The rewards are often bigger than expected, helping to improve productivity and safety, and reduce costs and capital investments.

What do you think will be areas of breakthroughs in the future?

At Harris we believe that sophisticated ground infrastructure will be required to unleash the full potential of the UAS industry. We call this the "BVLOS Network." It is an aviation-grade network that will provide a range of essential services to make BVLOS UAS flight possible. These services will include surveillance and DAA, command-and-control and payload communications links, and micro-weather, among others. Harris has already deployed many of these capabilities across the U.S. At the end of 2017 Harris will begin implementing a proof-of-concept BVLOS Network, as a service, at the Northern Plains UAS Test Site in North Dakota. Demonstrating an operational BVLOS network will be a critical milestone for the UAS industry allowing, for the first time, multi-UASBVLOS operations in an integrated manned/unmanned airspace as part of a real-world environment. Nothing like this exists today, and we at Harris are very excited to be working on making this vision a reality.

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