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Taking Flight

​In rural Grant County, Washington, public utility security personnel don't just protect remote substations—they help respond to the community's emergency calls. However, after one concerning encounter, it was clear something had to change—and security managers looked to the sky for solutions.

The Grant County Public Utilities Department (PUD) security leadership team gathered last March to review a disturbing incident from the previous night: a PUD security officer had responded to reports of a man seemingly under the influence firing a weapon indiscriminately in a nearby town. It's not unusual for PUD security personnel to respond to calls that do not pertain to the utilities because of the rural location and geography of the area, and that night the unarmed officer arrived at the scene of the disturbance before law enforcement. Fortunately, he was able to keep the man calm until police arrived, and the event ended without incident. Upon review, however, it was clear that the security officer could have been in harm's way.

"We have issues with people being on a substance, or domestic violence calls that we are first responders to, because law enforcement is a long way away," says Nick Weber, ​CPP, PSP, security manager for Grant County PUD. "We've had the patrol vehicle dented when residents kicked it, someone firing off weapons, and we just thought, 'how could we do this better?'" The team discussed solutions and initially joked about using a drone to mitigate problems. However, with more consideration, Weber said the idea began to gain traction. Using an off-the-shelf drone, the PUD could train its contract security officers to scope out a potentially perilous situation before endangering themselves, reducing response time. The drone could even be used for preemptive security assessments of the county's critical infrastructure.

"We had issues dealing with having unarmed security forces being placed into harm's way in order to solve issues related to the human environment, as well as looking for ways to better use our time and resources to conduct security assessments of substations, dams, and other critical buildings," says then physical security supervisor Brady Phelps, CPP, PSP. "We wanted to explore the challenges and opportunities that drones could present." Phelps—who now works as an auditor for the Western Electricity Coordinating Council—along with Weber and contract guard services account manager George Hainer began to flesh out the plan.​

In the Industry

The use of drones for security purposes is steadily picking up steam. As of summer 2016, more than 2,000 organizations had applied for commercial exemptions through the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to use drones for emergency management, security, or risk management, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. And an IFSEC Global report notes that the international security market for drones will grow to $10 billion by 2020.

But applications for commercial exemptions don't lead to drone programs overnight, and Grant County PUD's security team was unaware of any other electric utility companies that used drones for emergency response augmentation. The Grant County Sheriff's Department had been using drones for investigations for about six months, and the PUD was able to turn to it for licensing advice later in the process, but first had to outline a program—and get buy-in.

"We were concerned about the optics that the security department is buying toys—other departments could complain because some of the things we do in security are cool and there's some jealousy," Hainer explains. "There were also concerns about wasting money. We talked with our boss and agreed we'd create strict usage policies, as well as safety and security standards, and went ahead with our budget to buy three hobby-level drones as a test."

While the potential for drones seems endless, Phelps stresses the importance of fully understanding their capabilities and limits to explain possibilities to those granting approval without making unrealistic promises. And while the drones were primarily going to be used for security operations, PUD wanted to share the wealth with other critical infrastructure departments in the county.

"Establishing that firm understanding of the drones' capability helped us go to other departments that have needs," Phelps explains. "We wanted to see how the line department could use it, how the dam could use it, so we went to their leadership and said that we have this tool and we want to share it. It eliminated those internal optics by showing that this is a tool for business and we'd like to help you solve problems. That went a long way to get buy-in from the whole organization."

As part of a demonstration, the PUD team worked with the county's dam department to conduct an assessment of an embankment via drone. What would normally take three or four hours and involve exposing workers to dangerous conditions took seven minutes and captured clear 4K video that allowed for easy assessment. ​

Regulations and Beyond

Before the PUD could begin deploying its drones regularly, it had to meet several criteria imposed by the U.S. government. Unlike individual hobbyists, organizations or public entities have to apply for commercial exemptions through the FAA. Additionally, PUD wanted the ability to fly the drones out of its line of sight and at night, which also required waivers. Another challenge was determining who was going to fly the drones—all operators must be certified by the FAA, which could be time consuming and would reduce the pool of people who could use the technology. "It's a big problem for some guards with no clue about airplanes and passing that test," Hainer notes.

After consulting with the Grant County Sheriff's Department, Hainer—who has previously held a private pilot's license—began the process to become FAA certified as the pilot in command for the team, allowing him to conduct flights and train others. PUD is still waiting on another FAA certificate that would allow the team to certify its own pilots.

During the extensive certifications process, another unforeseen challenge came up—the PUD contract security officers who typically respond to emergencies filed a grievance through their union that the drone program would take their work away. To address this issue, the PUD security team agreed that, in addition to Hainer, about 14 contract guards would be trained to operate the drones. "There's a great chance that they are going to need the drones more often than one of us internally," Hainer notes.

Weber detailed the team's efforts to assure executives that the program wouldn't be misused—one of the drones' greatest use cases might be one of its greatest challenges. One of PUD's key patrol zones is the land along either side of the Columbia River—a 50-mile stretch with only one public crossing.

"Murphy's Law tends to hold true in that patrol zone with reported incidents inordinately happening on the opposite side of the river from our patrol officer, making one or two miles away a 30-plus minute response time by vehicle," Weber notes. Responding to a call with a drone would allow security to gain situational awareness within 10 minutes and understand what kind of additional response might be needed. "Do we need to go and pick up trash or is it a violent felony?" he says.

However, one executive raised concerns about using the drones along the river during the high-volume summer months when they are most needed—what happens if a security officer decides to use a drone to follow around a boatful of teenage girls in bikinis?

"That's a valid concern," Hainer says. "There will be strict requirements for what kind of event would launch the drone, the creation of a flight plan, coordinating with Security Operations Center—especially near critical infrastructure. Every flight is going to have a lot of paperwork to make sure it's never misused."

PUD agreed to tightly restrict usage to situations where the drone would be significantly more efficient or keep personnel out of harm's way, Weber says. When a call comes in to the Security Operations Center, officials would need to document justification and a flight plan before dispatching a drone, as well as notify utilities if the flight path is within 400 meters of a power plant, transmission line, or substation. "These controls provide reasonable assurance to our senior leadership that the drones will only be operated by trained personnel and have a documented business purpose for each flight," Weber notes.

While the drone emergency response program is still in the early stages—PUD is waiting on the rest of the FAA certifications and waivers, and Hainer is training the guards on drone operation—the team has already begun to conduct safety assessments for itself and other departments, such as the dam assessment.

"Right now, we're using imagery via Google Earth for threat assessments and there's a lag on what's accurate—a couple areas don't have up-to-date imagery, and some others are low quality," Hainer notes. "We'd be launching the drone, using a program that compiles the aerial imagery for use in response plans and threat assessments, and it's much more accurate and higher quality."

Weber says that the team is most excited about the reduced response time and potential to keep security personnel safe, but the drone program will have more practical uses too. PUD plans on using drones to keep tabs on remote substations and transmission lines, instead of relying on costly cameras or roving vehicle surveillance. Phelps points out that drones can also be used to make sure that the sites remain compliant.

"We're one of the first groups in the electric industry to do this, and there's no roadmap," Weber says. "The sheriff's department has been a great help because they're six months ahead of us with their program, and our risk department that is in charge of insurance is comfortable with it because of all the benefits."

The team says it is pleased that the program will be launched in time for the busy summer months along the river, and staff members are looking forward to discovering what other applications drones have for both security and critical infrastructure.

"The limitations will be set not by the FAA, but by imagination," Hainer says. "Drones will provide a lot more opportunity than threat."