Businesses using drones to improve operations
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.
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.