Expert Pilot Answers the Biggest Questions About Drones



The use of drones has been expanding in a big way over the past few years. According to drone expert Vern Shurtz, the electric utility industry is toward the front of the pack.

“The use of drones in the utility space is getting fairly advanced at this point,” says Shurtz, Program Manager for the Trusted Operator Program at the Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International. AUVSI advocates and provides education on robotics and autonomous vehicles designed for land, water, and air, including drones.

“I had some conversations with utility companies here in Florida back around 2015,” Shurtz relates. “Back then they were like, ‘What’s a drone?’ Now you’d be hard-pressed to find an electric utility that isn’t using them in some way.”

Drone control mapping utilities Drones are becoming more common in the utility industry for several reasons.

“One benefit of drones is accessibility,” Shurtz points out. “A lot of powerlines go through some pretty difficult terrain. It’s almost impossible to drive a boom truck into some locations to go up and inspect a powerline or tower. Safety is another benefit. Drones are also much more cost-effective. Instead of needing an entire crew and a helicopter, all you typically need is a couple of people and a pickup truck.”

Of course, you also need the drone—not to mention any tools to go with it. When talking with someone new to drones, Shurtz says the most common question he gets is, “Which drone should I get?” His answer always is, “That depends on what you want to do with it.”

Drones are commonly used to take high-resolution imagery of powerline components to assist with defect detection. Drones can also be equipped with lidar (light detection and ranging) to create 3D models of things like transmission lines, substations, and natural disaster sites. You can also equip a drone with a telephoto lens, an infrared camera, and many other tools.

“Some drones have more capabilities than others,” Shurtz points out. “The more a drone can do, the more expensive it gets. So it’s really important to think about what you want to do with the drone, and then explore your options from there.”

Live demonstration

Utility professionals will get a good look at a variety of drones at The Utility Expo coming up in September. His sold out session will provide expert insights as well as plenty of opportunities to ask questions, and will also involve live product demonstrations.

“We’re going to visit the booths of some top drone manufacturers and flight service providers,” Shurtz says. Following that exhibitor tour, Shurtz will lead attendees outdoors to a demonstration area. He will show attendees how to set up a safe inspection site, position themselves as the pilot, maneuver a drone around a powerline, operate the tools to capture photos and data, and then download and view the data once the flight mission is complete.

“This session will be helpful for anyone who is already doing line inspections but would like to learn about how they can start using drones,” Shurtz says. “Nobody pays a drone pilot to just fly a drone. They are paying that drone pilot to also perform inspections. A utility lineman using a drone is more of a data collection specialist than anything else. That data could be images, lidar, thermography, or several different things. So you have to be part pilot and part data collection specialist. That’s what we’re going to talk about and demonstrate at The Utility Expo.”

About the speaker

Vern Shurtz is a TOP Level 3 Remote Pilot and Remote Pilot Instructor. In addition to his role at the AUVSI, Shurtz serves as an Adjunct Instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Shurtz has been a commercial UAS (unmanned aircraft system) operator and remote pilot since 2015. His journey into the world of drones has been an interesting one. From 1982-1995 he was a nuclear propulsion plant mechanical operator in the U.S. Navy. “I essentially operated nuclear powerplants on submarines,” Shurtz says. “When you add up all the time, I spent about four years underwater.”

After Shurtz got out of the Navy, he spent the next several years developing multimedia training solutions, including augmented reality and virtual reality for industries including construction. He was spending a lot of time developing active shooter virtual reality training for schools when COVID-19 hit in 2020. Everything Shurtz was doing shut down.

“Something I had gotten pretty heavily into before that was flying drones, mainly for photogrammetry purposes,” Shurtz says. “So when COVID-19 hit, I started getting back into drones. I even took several courses at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, as well as courses from the AUVSI.”

Now Shurtz is a pilot instructor for both the AUVSI and Embry-Riddle. “I’m looking forward to sharing what I’ve learned with attendees at The Utility Expo,” Shurtz relates.


Shurtz’s Field Classroom on drones is just one of dozens of learning opportunities at The Utility Expo 2023. Discover new strategies and techniques while making lasting connections with your peers in the utility industry. Click here for more information on The Utility Expo's comprehensive education program. 

2023 Education Sessions


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