THE BIG INTERVIEW: Taking UAV capabilities in-house at Yorkshire Water

Yorkshire Water

As the amount of commercial drone applications continues its unstoppable rise, more and more enterprises have turned to UAVs to resolve a problem.

While companies that incorporated drones into their business practices originally outsourced their needs, there is now a growing move towards bringing drone capabilities in-house.

One of the companies that is currently operating its own drone team is water supply and treatment utility company Yorkshire Water.

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UAV managers Simon Roxby and David Forbes outline how the company has reached this point and gives an insight into the day-to-day of internal drone operations.

Firstly, could you outline a bit of your day-to-day job? And how long you have been in your current position and what you were doing before?

SR: I’m a service reservoir engineer so I have responsibility for the management, maintenance and improvement of Yorkshire Water’s service reservoirs and potable water storage assets. I provide and apply the technical knowledge which is used to identify any structural defects and specify the techniques and approaches used to repair them. This involves working together with our maintenance team, specialist service reservoir rehabilitation framework partner, asset delivery framework partners and others in their resolution. My role also includes the development of both medium and long-term investment strategies as well as ensuring compliance with regulatory standards, administration of framework contracts and the performance management of assets. It’s an interesting and rewarding role in which I have ownership of schemes and projects from risk identification to solution delivery. The asset base within my remit also includes water towers which is where I first had the idea to explore alternative methods using UAV to assist traditional asset inspections at height. At that time UAV technology was just becoming affordable to the commercial market.

drone flight

DF: As a Risk and Solutions Engineer my role is to work with operational colleagues to determine the risks our waste water assets face and to plan capital intervention to reduce those risks. I then liaise with our service delivery team and contract partners to ensure the capital schemes I raise meet regulatory compliance, deliver solutions that will benefit the river networks and are in-line with customers needs. I have been in this role for a couple of years now and was an asset planning engineer before that. My role brought me into contact with Simon, who was looking at UAVs to inspect water towers and it quickly became clear that this technology could be used for a number of different asset inspections and I jumped at the chance to get involve with this emerging technology.

What attracted you to working with UAVs?

SR: Initially the attraction was to use cutting-edge technology to give us the ability to undertake more thorough physical inspections of assets at height, particularly in those areas which could not be accessed by ladders or conventional access methods. It also offered a more efficient way of monitoring and recording asset condition over time and on a more frequent basis due its simplicity and ease of use. Another very important benefit that attracted me to UAV technology is its ability to reduce the health and safety risks to our employees and contract partners by reducing or removing the working at height risk. This in-turn offers great efficiencies by enabling us to reduce the need for scaffolding, crane hire and specialist access teams which subsequently results in reduced operating costs.

DF: UAVs allow me to work with the latest technology and at the same time reduce the health and safety risk to our operational colleagues. It’s a great feeling knowing that you do not have to ask someone to work at height, when with the proper controls, UAV technology can do a similar task. UAV technology is also moving at an amazing pace and my role allows me to review the market to see if there is anything that could benefit Yorkshire Water. At the moment, we are reviewing the use of collision tolerant UAVs to inspect the inside of tanks and I am also looking for intrinsically safe UAVs to work in potentially explosive atmospheres. Working with our framework suppliers also allows me to see the innovations they are making in the UAV world and I can’t help but be inspired by their professionalism and willingness to adapt to any situation.

SR: It’s exciting for us working for a forward-thinking company that’s always looking to utilise innovation and embrace emerging technologies, in addition to collaborating with equally ambitious UAV framework partners.

What was the process of becoming a UAV manager like?

SR: Managing a UAV process is a great deal more involved than first we first envisaged when we first invested in DJIs first generation Inspire 1 at the beginning of 2015. Both Dave and I undertake Yorkshire Waters UAV accountable manager responsibilities together with the management of our framework of approved UAV operators. Both of these are in addition to our day jobs so the roles require a high level of commitment and dedication to deliver effectively. As the role has developed and become wider reaching the outputs being delivered by UAV technology have also grown and become more significant to the business.

DF: As a business we needed to understand the risks of UAV technology and what processes and procedures needed to be put in place to ensure we operated safely and within the law. The process started with a cross business working group and interested colleagues from across the business were invited to attend. This group set the ground rules for what is now the Yorkshire Water UAV team and their input was invaluable. It quickly became clear that to operate UAVs or employ others to do tasks on our behalf, we had to take the appropriate training to become qualified pilots and to put the policies and procedures in place that would allow us to apply to the CAA for a PfCO. This training has not only allowed us to understand the regulations set out by the CAA, but has also allowed us to objectively review and understand the risk assessments and method statements of our framework partners.

SR: When the concept was first pitched to our direct management team they immediately saw the advantages of UAV technology and fully supported the idea, this was further endorsed by our director of asset management. In addition, our director of H&S also takes an active interest in Yorkshire Water’s UAV operations.

DF: As well as senior management, we also worked closely with our legal team and data protection team to ensure everything we did protected our customers, our staff and the business.

SR: It’s been hugely rewarding working together with Dave and having joint accountability for managing Yorkshire Water’s UAV operations. We’ve undertaken a wide variety of UAV tasks which have ranged from asset condition inspections at height such as water towers, treatment tanks and process buildings, to catchment management and landfill surveys. We’ve also undertaken promotional work to engage customers and stakeholders with various YW schemes.

There is still quite a big divide between companies employing in-house UAV managers and those commissioning third party providers. What are your thoughts on this situation?

SR: We’ve found that setting up an in-house UAV management team gives us the ability to ensure the correct level of governance is being applied not only to our own operations but also those UAV operators working for or on behalf of YW. Having gone through the NQE training and undertaken the relevant CAA qualifications we now have the expertise in-house to be able to critically assess UAV task related risk assessments and method statements to ensure they meet the required regulatory standards expected, in addition to our own.

DF: We advocate both internal UAV management and external suppliers. For us, we could not safely employ UAV companies to work on our sites if we did not understand the risks their work posed to our customers, staff and business. Our internal UAV team allows us to undertake visual inspection and communication tasks, it also allows us to safely utilise the experience of our specialist framework operators to take on the more technically advanced tasks. We have chosen to work with UAV companies who are at the forefront of the technology and each of our framework operators has experience and knowledge in a different field. This allows us to offer the best service to the business while at the same time driving innovation.

SR: As Dave has mentioned, in addition to our internal capability we have established a framework of YW approved external UAV operators using a thorough and rigorous approval process. This not only allows our aerial operations to be undertaken more safely throughout the business, but gives us a wealth of expertise and technologies to utilise from professional providers.

What are the main challenges you encounter in your line of work?

SR: Some of the biggest challenges we face are those that we give to ourselves. We apply as much rigour as we can to our policies, procedures and operations to ensure we’re flying as safely as we can while still being practical in approach. Liaising with and involving internal departments as well as external bodies forms part of our due diligence. Other challenges include the practical application of specialist sensor and survey technology resulting in the provision of tangible outcomes. We need to manage our own expectations and remember that UAV reliant processes are still in their infancy rather than being an industry adopted standard. That being said we are making rapid progress in many areas.

DF: The policies and procedures we have written to ensure UAVs can operate safely and at the same time protect personal data is both a challenge and a comfort. We have spent a long time getting our procedures to a high standard and we are now at the point of offering our support to other companies that are just starting on the UAV path. There also seems to be a lack of risk awareness in some (but by no means all) of the UAV companies on the market. We have seen massive difference in the approach to both safety and data protection and we have chosen our framework suppliers because of their level of knowledge and their awareness of risk.

Where do you see the in-house industry in five years?

SR: From the feedback we have received our approach has been seen as industry leading within the utility sector but I think this approach will become more common in coming years. I expect this will depend on the skill set of the in-house operators in applying specialist techniques and how quickly remote sensing advances to solve a particular problem. There are certainly considerable Health and Safety benefits for any company who decide to create an internal UAV capability due to the skills, knowledge and experience it implants in the business.

We have spoken to other water companies and they look to be adopting a similar approach to Yorkshire Water. There’s no doubt there are a growing number of applications for UAV use in many areas of our business and we feel that our in-house team are in a great position to utilise new opportunities when they arise. For innovation, research and development projects I expect, for the moment at least, this to be undertaken collaboratively together with our UAV partners depending on the specialist expertise required.

DF: It would be good to see any company using UAV technology having an in-house team. This will allow these companies to understand the risks they are taking and to put policies and procedures in place to mitigate those risks. At the moment Simon and I are allocating our time effectively in order to manage the UAV team and associated work as well as manage our framework of suppliers.

How have you seen the landscape of the industry change?

DF: Yes I have, UAV companies are pushing the technical envelope and are now starting to deliver tangible asset management solutions. We’re seeing technical solutions to issues that 12 months ago was not even possible and UAV companies are effectively becoming technology companies that use UAV’s, rather than UAV companies that can take detailed images.

SR: Rather than UAV operators using existing technology in an attempt to deliver outcomes we’ve seen technology and innovation companies start to use UAVs as a platform to facilitate their specialisms and expertise. In addition to this these tech companies are building and delivering impressive software architecture to effectively represent the large amounts of captured data. In some cases UAV operations are starting to forge a more integral part of company procedures by being written into process policy.

What are the key elements you think a qualified training entity should be addressing when teaching new pilots?

DF: The training course that Simon and I took had a number of online modules to complete before we attended a week long ground school. We really like this approach as it gives everyone a basic grounding of air principles and meteorology before we even considered the UAV aspect. I would like to see this level of detail maintained. I would also like to see a module on data protection, where to find the information needed and what basic rules should be followed to ensure the pilot does not record personal data. Maybe a Privacy Impact Assessment could form part of the course?

SR: Our view is that the requirements of the CAA regulations should be a minimum standard on which to build further safe practices. We’re currently organising internal audits of our own UAV processes and may even look to involve external bodies in this assessment. We’ve spoken to quite a few pilots on our journey who, we feel, do not have the necessary level of competence and awareness of risk to undertake aerial operations, certainly not for Yorkshire Water. We’ve seen many examples of this during our internal approval process when vetting risk assessments and method statements from providers who wish to be considered for our UAV framework agreement. Having worked closely with the head of air traffic control at Leeds Bradford ATC it’s clear the consequences of misuse are not reaching all operators. More stringent regulation, together with maintaining very high NQE training standards, is key to keeping the skies safe and avoiding a potential catastrophe.

Tags : David Forbesdrone managerIn-houseSimon RoxbyUAVYorkshire Water
Emma Calder

The author Emma Calder

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