Flying Solo

A man in a white hardhat, yellow safety vest, and jeans hold drone operating equipment in his hands, looking at a drone flying in front of him. He is standing outside in front of an industrial building that has maroon columns, yellow beams and guard rails, and grey walls and pipes.
An employee pilots a remote airframe.

There are many names for remotely piloted aircraft, and you may have heard them called drones, but here at the King County Wastewater Treatment Division (WTD), we refer to them as an RPAS—or a Remotely Piloted Aircraft System. The use of RPASs by the County began about six years ago, but it is only recently that WTD came to own and operate our own devices. Before that, contractors were hired to provide the services that WTD now performs.

Geographic Information System Senior Specialist Peter Keum was instrumental in pushing for WTD to procure their own RPASs.

“Over time we found that by owning and operating our own systems, we were less limited in how the aircraft was used,” says Peter. “It also saves the County money in the long run because after the initial outlay of funds, maintenance costs and software expenses are far less than what we would pay for someone else to inspect our assets.”

The use of RPASs will also save time and money because workers will no longer be bound by conventional means of inspection. Previously, an inspection of County assets might have required the erection of scaffolding in order for a human inspector to physically walk among areas that required examination. The inspector would then walk on foot to inspect the relevant areas, taking up to a day or more to complete the task. The temporary scaffolding would then need to be broken down at a considerable cost of time and money. Plus, whenever human entry to confined spaces occurs, there is always a possibility that something may go wrong. Errors in judgment and unforeseeable occurrences can result in injury or death. 

A black drone sits on the ground on top of a red and black launching pad.
An RPAS used by the Wastewater Treatment Division.

Conversely, by using an RPAS to fly into confined spaces, no scaffolding would be required and the risk to human operators eliminated. Inspections would take less time and decision makers could be informed with the latest information faster. Since operating costs are reduced, workers can complete more frequent inspections resulting in greater access to the latest data. 

As useful as an RPAS might be, not just anyone can fly one of these devices. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification is required for the RPASs used by WTD and there are currently three employees that are certified to fly the department’s aircraft. Peter sees this as an opportunity to expand RPAS use and hopes that more employees will become certified in the use of the devices. 

“The more experience we can gain using these systems, the better,” he says. “They’re a great way to get the most up to date information on our assets and ongoing construction projects and create value for all our stakeholders. When people think of government operations they usually picture agencies that are ineffective or stuck in the past and that couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re out here innovating and trying new things to improve conditions for everyone.”

A man in a white hard hat, yellow safety vest and jeans, stands looking up a a drone in the sky. Industrial railings, a crane and trees are in the background.
An employee tests an RPAS for flight capability.

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