By Andrew Brown
Over the next year, the federal government estimates that 1.9 million more commercially-operated drones will be added to the country's skies. Some local business executives are positioning themselves to take advantage of that 21st-century technology.
Debra Rohrer, president of GEO-RHEA, and John Skaff, director of strategic development at Metatron, have been trying for five years to set up a multifaceted business, based in Kanawha City, that would use unmanned aerial vehicles.
At a time when business giants like Amazon are experimenting with drones, and the technology is being adapted for a range of profitable uses across the country, the two Charleston-area residents are planning to market their services to what they believe is a relatively-untapped market: the industrial sector.
Rohrer and Skaff want to make it easier to inspect and maintain bridges, rail lines, cell-phone towers, power lines, pipelines, power stations, chemical plants and many other industrial sites that are mandated to meet federal standards for safety and maintenance.
The two entrepreneurs aren't alone in realizing the business opportunities that could exist for companies specializing in drone operations. The Federal Aviation Administration has already registered more than 4,800 drone services across the country since the agency began accepting applications at the beginning of 2015.
But Rohrer and Skaff believe their professional backgrounds and broader business strategy, which will also include back-office data analysis and engineering consultations to its customers, will allow them to provide services that most drone operations aren't offering.
Skaff, one of the founders and former board members of the Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research and Innovation Center (MATRIC), compared their business proposition to radiology. Not only will they take the X-ray - the drone footage - they will also review that imagery and provide an opinion from trained professionals, which in their case, will often be civil engineering consultants.
"We know these drone applications are going to be paramount in the industrial world," Skaff said.
Like many other companies taking part in the fledgling industry, the joint operation also offers services to people who want to rent their drones and licensed pilots to capture professional aerial footage for weddings, a new construction project, marketing campaigns or a piece of real estate that is for sale.
They just got done shooting a video of the New River Gorge Bridge for a German group that is creating a documentary on the world's most amazing bridges, and when the Yeager Airport's runway overrun collapsed last year, a local television station got GEO-RHEA to fly over the site - even though the company couldn't get paid for its services at that time.
But the real market Rohrer and Skaff are looking to capture involves more sophisticated work, like visually inspecting cell towers, a job that is usually done by two-man crews that throw on harnesses and physically climb the steel structures, which can reach hundreds of feet into the air.
By hiring their pilots to regularly inspect cell towers, Skaff said companies will be able to save time and money. A tower, which can take a crew more than a day to physically check, can be inspected down to the inch in less than two hours by a drone pilot standing on the ground.
That visual inspection then allows the crews to pinpoint where maintenance work needs to be done, lessening the chance of injury or death, which can cost companies large amounts of money. "You are never going to take away people climbing," Skaff said, "but what you are going to do is minimize their exposure."
Those applications can be adapted to any number of industrial uses, Skaff said, including inspecting flare stacks at chemical plants, where gasses are burned off at extremely high temperatures.
In the past, those flares have had to be inspected during planned plant outages so that they could cool off, but Skaff foresees the inspections being conducted by drones while flames are still leaping from the pipes. They can then be repaired more quickly during shutdowns.
All of those practical examples fit with Rohrer's mantra. "If it's dirty, dangerous or dull," she says, "use a drone."
Rohrer, a former employee of NiSource, which split off into Columbia Pipeline Group, became a player in the world of commercial drone operations in 2011, after losing her job at the natural gas transmission company.
Using her 11 years of experience in working with NiSource's geographic information systems, Rohrer recognized quickly that there could be an opportunity to utilize drones and adapt some of the knowledge she picked up in her previous career.
She quickly got to work with others developing the technology and systems needed to calculate the size of coal stockpiles in the hills of West Virginia and around the world using geospatial images taken from cameras attached to the bottom of drones.
Charles Craig Davis, one of the companies' licensed pilots, who is also an Air Force veteran, flew the roughly three-and-a-half pound, military-grade drone over acres of coal, taking photographs, which would later be pieced together into topographic or contour maps.
The technology, which was shown to be more accurate than the traditional process of surveying the stockpiles from the ground, quickly proved to be a valuable tool for coal mine operators, Rohrer said.
Since coal companies are required to pay severance taxes once the minerals are unearthed, accurately calculating the volume of those coal stockpiles are extremely important. If you overestimate the size of the pile, the company ends of paying more in taxes.
As a result, Rohrer's calculations taken from drones, at times, ended up saving coal companies hundreds of thousands of dollars. In one case, at a large coal stockpile in McDowell County, which she and her pilot affectionately named "the beast," GEO-RHEA was able to show that there was actually 30,000 cubic yards less of coal than what they surveyors had estimated previously.
"They were paying more severance tax based on the manual process than doing it with the drone," Rohrer said.
As the global coal markets have declined, however, so too have calls from coal companies that are seeking the company's services. But that market shift hasn't been the only roadblock that they have hit.
When Rohrer and Skaff started out, both had trouble finding lenders willing to finance their proposed business strategies. With little collateral, many of the banks in the region, at first, were averse to lending to companies that were seeking to commercialize drone operations.
"Drones were very new technology in their application and the banks couldn't see it," Rohrer said.
At one point, a deal that would have allowed Skaff to purchase a cell-phone tower construction and maintenance firm from Pittsburgh to compliment their planned drone operations fell through because he couldn't find a lender willing to complete the deal in time.
That failure stopped him from moving that operation and its 53 jobs to Charleston, he said.
That hasn't stopped Skaff and Rhorer. They still believe there is a huge opportunity to grow their business in West Virginia and surrounding states.
"We are taking the risk," Skaff said. "My goodness, we are developing an industry that is still in its infant stages here in West Virginia and nationally."
They only have four full-time staff members currently, including themselves and two trained pilots, but if they can find recurring industrial clients, they expect to hire more pilots, professional engineers and other technical staff in the future.
"The goal and the hope is that we will have people to employ in West Virginia," Rohrer said. "If you can learn, if you are technically inclined and you've got the right attitude, we can teach you how to do it."
Reach Andrew Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-4814 or follow @Andy_Ed_Brown on Twitter.