TAK­ING FLIGHT

Busi­nesses us­ing drones to im­prove op­er­a­tions

The Washington Times Daily - - METRO - BY JOHN REID BLACK­WELL

RICH­MOND | With a buzzing sound like a swarm of bees, a fly­ing de­vice re­sem­bling a minia­ture he­li­copter lifted off from the ground at Luck Stone Corp.’s Bosco­bel quarry one day last spring.

Pi­loted by Eric Warin­ner, an en­gi­neer­ing tech­ni­cian at Luck Stone, the de­vice — small enough to be held in a man’s arms — hov­ered above the com­pany’s crushed stone op­er­a­tion, then zoomed like a hum­ming­bird around a mas­sive pile of crushed stone and the rail cars at the Goochland County quarry.

The pur­pose was to get the de­vice’s cam­eras to spots where it can be dif­fi­cult for a per­son to go, such as the top of a tow­er­ing con­veyor ma­chine that moves crushed stone near the quarry.

“We can put our eyes on any­thing we need to put our eyes on,” Mr. Warin­ner said.

Most peo­ple would call the de­vice a drone. “It is a pop­u­lar term,” said John Black­more, a sur­vey­ing and map­ping su­per­vi­sor for Luck Stone.

But it’s not the word he prefers to use. In­stead, Mr. Warin­ner and Mr. Black­more, who man­age the com­pany’s drone pro­gram, pre­fer the more tech­ni­cal term — un­manned aerial ve­hi­cle, or UAV — when dis­cussing the fly­ing tools they de­ploy to gather all sorts of data from Luck Stone’s quar­ry­ing op­er­a­tions.

The Goochland-based com­pany then an­a­lyzes that in­for­ma­tion for plan­ning and to bring greater ef­fi­ciency to its busi­ness.

The com­pany, a ma­jor pro­ducer of stone, sand and gravel prod­ucts for con­struc­tion and other in­dus­tries, has been us­ing UAVs for about three years to do a va­ri­ety of jobs at its quar­ries and distri­bu­tion cen­ters in Vir­ginia and North Carolina.

“To us, this is a tool and a way we are do­ing our job bet­ter,” Mr. Black­more said. “It has re­ally changed our busi­ness to have this tech­nol­ogy.”

For Mr. Warin­ner and Mr. Black­more, an even bet­ter way to re­fer to the tech­nol­ogy is UAS, for un­manned aerial sys­tem, be­cause the aerial ve­hi­cles them­selves are only part of the tech­nol­ogy. It also in­cludes the tools for pro­gram­ming the aerial de­vices and or­ga­niz­ing, an­a­lyz­ing and shar­ing the data they col­lect.

“It is a sys­tem of air­craft, and soft­ware with very com­plex math com­pu­ta­tions, that makes this very use­ful for us,” Mr. Black­more said.

Luck Stone’s use of UAVs is one ex­am­ple of how drones, of­ten thought of pri­mar­ily as mil­i­tary tools or nov­el­ties for hob­by­ists, can be used in a com­mer­cial set­ting to im­prove busi­ness out­comes.

Do­min­ion En­ergy, Vir­ginia’s largest util­ity, is an­other ex­am­ple. The com­pany has been us­ing drones since 2013, mainly for trans­mis­sion line in­spec­tions in hard-to-reach places such as wa­ter cross­ings.

“We typ­i­cally do a lot of th­ese in­spec­tions with he­li­copters,” said Steve Eisen­rauch, the com­pany’s man­ager for trans­mis­sion lines and forestry, who leads its UAV pro­gram. “We have been able to off­set some of that with drones. When we do that, there is a much smaller en­vi­ron­men­tal foot­print to be able to use a drone in­stead of a he­li­copter. There is an added level of safety.”

Since 2015, the com­pany has used UAVs to in­spect nearly 5,000 trans­mis­sion line struc­tures, he said. To con­duct its drone pro­gram, Do­min­ion has part­nered with Ha­zon So­lu­tions, a Vir­ginia Beach-based provider of small UAV in­spec­tion ser­vice op­er­a­tions.

At least for now, there re­main some lim­i­ta­tions to the com­mer­cial op­er­a­tion of drones im­posed by the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion. Those in­clude re­stric­tions on fly­ing the de­vices be­yond the op­er­a­tor’s line of sight and re­stric­tions on night­time use.

David A. Culler, Ha­zon So­lu­tions’ co-founder and CEO, said he be­lieves that as the tech­nol­ogy de­vel­ops and safety con­cerns are ad­dressed, those and other re­stric­tions will be eased and UAVs can be put to use in a wider range of in­dus­tries.

The FAA does not pro­vide state-level in­for­ma­tion on how many com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions are us­ing drones, a spokes­woman for the agency said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPH

Eric Warin­ner, en­gi­neer­ing tech­ni­cian for Luck Stone, demon­strates how the com­pany uses a drone at their Bosco­bel quarry, in Manakin-Sabot, Vir­ginia. In­stead of hav­ing peo­ple climb the ra­dial stacker they use the UAV to check on wear of the ma­chine.

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