Asset management requires precise information about the location and condition of an organization’s assets, as well as the ability to regularly inspect them and update that information. American Water is one company that has started to use drones to do this. American Water’s drones are not only used as eyes in the sky to inspect specific problems in hard-to-reach locations like elevated water storage tanks, but the information they collect is integrated into the company’s internal mapping and geographic information systems (GIS) software. Further, with specialized thermal imaging and ground-penetrating radar (GPR) sensors, American Water’s drones can locate buried assets and rapidly identify damaged solar panels, among other tasks.

In this interview, Chris Kahn, American Water’s senior GIS manager, speaks with Municipal Water Leader Editor-in-Chief Kris Polly about the advantages of the company’s drone system and his advice for other agencies interested in establishing a similar program.

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Kris Polly: Please tell us about your background and how you ended up in your current position.

Chris Kahn: I have an undergraduate degree in geography from Rutgers. I was an intern and then an employee with the Middlesex County, New Jersey, engineering department as a GIS analyst during college. After graduation, I worked for a couple of years for a car navigation company now named TomTom. This was before Google Maps—turn-by-turn navigation was not yet common and the data were often flawed. I got to travel around a lot, making the maps better and seeing the country. Eventually, I earned a master’s degree in GIS, which is like the information technology branch of geography. GIS is what makes spatial analysis and location analytics possible. For about 4 years, I consulted for a company that built GIS databases for the City of Philadelphia. In January 2008, I started with New Jersey American Water, which had just begun its GIS program. 

My roles have changed over the years. As far as titles, I started as a senior technician and then became a project manager, a senior project manager, and a manager, and I am now a senior manager leading a new department named Geospatial Operational Services. Ultimately, I moved from New Jersey American Water to American Water Service Company, which serves all the company’s regulated state subsidiaries. 

Part of my current role includes generating value from cutting-edge geospatial technologies. We figure out how they fit into the business. UAS (unmanned aerial systems) affect many departments, including supply chain, legal, risk management (insurance), physical security, cybersecurity, production, operations, engineering, and communications. 

New Jersey American Water’s drones are piloted from a Mobile Operations Center trailer.

The drone industry is maturing rapidly and is heading toward more automation and integration into the national airspace. From a regulations standpoint, UAS will soon operate similarly to traditional aviation. With this in mind, my most recent professional development is working through the Mercer County College aviation and technology program in New Jersey, where I am learning to fly manned aircraft and earning my commercial pilot’s license. I am also learning a great deal about how the commercial aviation world developed and how it operates today, which is helping me build a better drone program with the various stakeholders at American Water.

Kris Polly: Please tell us about American Water.

Chris Kahn: With headquarters in Camden, New Jersey, American Water is the largest and most geographically diverse publicly traded U.S. water and wastewater utility company. The company employs more than 7,100 dedicated professionals who provide regulated and market-based drinking water, wastewater, and other related services to more than 14 million people in 46 states. The company has 15 regulated state subsidiaries, including New Jersey American Water, which is the largest publicly traded water and wastewater services provider in New Jersey, serving 2.7 million people in 192 communities. 

Kris Polly: Please tell us about your unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) system.

Chris Kahn: We started thinking about it at New Jersey American Water in 2015. One of our longtime vendors, who works with high-end, high-accuracy GPS equipment, introduced me to UAVs’ potential for mapping—not simply mapping imagery, but also topography and contour lines for making design products. The vendor showed me some examples and told me how inexpensive the drone was.

I brought it to my supervisors’ attention and told them that this was one of the geospatial technologies that would be big in 3–5 years. They gave me the go-ahead to start researching the system. In 2016, we learned that Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Regulation part 107 was coming. This would remove the requirement of a private pilot’s license to fly UAVs commercially. Prior to that, to fly a drone you either needed to be a private pilot with a part 333 exemption or to have a certificate of authorization as a public university. Before the release of part 107 in August 2016, we started our proof of concept by working with our vendor, who had a part 333 exception, and with a public university in New Jersey. We invited a lot of companies to an event at which they could demonstrate sensors and airframes. My job was to evaluate them and decide what technologies could be scaled and which could deliver high value with lower risk and cost. 

Early on, we identified two things as lower risk and high value. One was mapping updates. We’re installing main extensions and new developments all the time, but they wouldn’t show up on our distribution map, which is like what you see on Google Maps but is private to the company and our contractors. Frontline workers didn’t have a point of reference in their maps for years. One of the decisions we made was to immediately update the imagery on all our projects via drone. When someone turns on the imagery map, it includes all the most recent updates. They’ll see the new properties, the new configurations, and where the curb lines are. That allows them to do their measurements effectively. 

The second initiative was supporting the inspection process with drones. In New Jersey alone, we have almost 200 elevated potable water tanks. To do a visual assessment of the condition of the coating requires an employee or contractor to climb the tank, which is slow, can cost a lot of money, and is a potential safety hazard. With drones, we can easily do a visual inspection of every single tank on an annual basis and store that imagery where those who need it can access it. 

Kris Polly: In addition to conventional cameras, do the drones use other kinds of sensors? 

Chris Kahn: We have some cameras with 30x optical zoom. This provides the ability to capture shots from a safe distance of several hundred feet. This comes in handy when things like power lines, branches, or trees make flying closer unsafe. We own several thermal sensors. We also have several multispectral sensors used for algae measurement and a GPR.

We have several types of drone airframes. Some can lift and carry sensors that weigh up to 35 pounds. Others can fly in the rain or look upwards at the underside of bridges. As you go through them, our drones get more complex to operate, more expensive, and have fewer use cases, but each use case delivers a higher value. Our workhorses are fairly inexpensive and are equipped with red-green-blue (RGB) cameras that can take images and video. The drones at the next stage up have sensor configurations that we can mount in any direction and can mount many different sensor types. Looking upward is important for things like critical crossings and bridges. If a main is bolted to the underside of a bridge, we may need to get underneath it to look up and make sure that the bolts that are holding it up are not corroding. 

Thermal and multispectral sensors are harder to use, but they give you insights that you can’t get with RGB. Security is currently the highest-value use for thermal sensors. We have a daylight waiver that allows us to fly at night within our visual line of sight, and soon we will apply to the FAA to go beyond the line of sight. We want the ability to fly a couple miles beyond our line of sight at night to patrol our reservoirs via thermal imaging. An application we have scaled is looking at solar panel fields. In New Jersey, we have seven large solar fields. We’re able to fly over them and combine the imagery with the as-built design drawings of the solar field. We can tell down to the diode when they go bad. Then we can send a detailed report to the maintenance person that identifies each diode that’s out and how much power is being lost.

GPR is a technology that can see underground and locate infrastructure. It’s kind of an add-on for GPS. Normally, we can only use GPS on physical assets that come up to the surface. We regularly use a GPR based on a cart to map subsurface utilities. Using GPR on a drone is something we have only tested to see if it works—and it does! It does not speed the process up, nor do we fly very high. The idea is to get over terrain that a traditional cart-mounted GPR cannot. Think of thick, 6-foot-high weeds that go for miles down an easement. We can fly just above them carrying a 35-pound radar at walking speed and capture the same data.

Kris Polly: How many drones do you have?

Drones at the ready in New Jersey American Water’s Mobile Operations Center.

Chris Kahn: At American Water, I believe we have 19 total, and as of September 2019, we have about 40 pilots. In the past year or so, we have completed over 700 flights. We also have several pilots who are now qualified instructor pilots.

We spent 2016–2018 dealing with the business case; finding out what technology works; figuring out how to scale it; approaching risk, legal, and all the departments I mentioned before; creating a companywide policy; creating a practice and a governance policy; and engaging aviation experts to help us write a safety management system, which we launched in 2017. Scaling the technology to enterprise scale is a long road, but we’re right on the cusp of completion. Illinois American Water, for example, went from having zero pilots at the start of the year to having 12 pilots by the spring. They were all trained at once on the safety management system, how to fly at night, and air incident response operations—how do you respond if there is a crash, and how do you document it? We have procedures for pretty much everything. They were able to do what New Jersey American Water did over several years right out of the gate. We’ve set up these on-ramps for all the regulated states. Each state needs to have an executive sponsor in order to start the program internally and a program manager who is responsible for day-to-day operations in addition to the pilots. There’s also a safety officer, who might be the same person as the program manager depending on the size of the UAV program.

Every 90 days, every pilot has to be in what’s called currency. They’re certified for certain drones and certain mission types. The restrictions are strict: You’re only allowed to fly a specific drone with specific sensors for a specific reason. We certify our pilots for each drone. All that is tracked in an online logbook system. The logbook tracks everything, down to every battery cycle that we go through. 

Kris Polly: How has the UAV program changed the way American Water does asset management?

Chris Kahn: The biggest change so far for folks who are in engineering, operations, and production is the ability to have eyes in the sky. They are responsible for elevated assets that are often in remote areas. We’re able to observe them inexpensively, because our pilots can fly 10 tanks in 1 day and provide imagery in near-real time. We can even provide real-time video feeds. They can spot an open hatch, a damaged solar panel, or a broken fence at a remote site. Engineering operators can request a look at a particular nut or bolt or meter-reading antenna. In one case, it took 5 minutes to fly to the top of a tank and verify that an advanced metering infrastructure antenna was damaged. That saves an immense amount of time and money when the alternative is a harnessed climber.

From a mapping perspective, the change has been enormous. It is just expected now that when a new project goes in the ground, all the assets have been entered in GIS with centimeter accuracy from a global navigation satellite system, and the updated imagery is in the map. I don’t think that the majority of the end users know the magic of how it happens, but they expect it to be there. The measurements we’re talking about go down to a centimeter or two. Each pixel on the screen of a drone image is about 2 centimeters across, whereas in Google Maps it’s 1 foot across. That provides extreme precision. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you have a few hundred thousand work orders a year, and you can save 5–10 minutes on each one, the efficiency adds up.

Kris Polly: What advice do you have for other municipal water providers that are thinking about establishing a UAV program? 

Chris Kahn: Lead with safety. It’s too easy, in my opinion, to get a drone from a box store or the Internet. The biggest hurdle is that they’re viewed as toys, not as tools. I tell people to think about them the same way they would think about a new chop saw: a potentially dangerous tool that has high value for your business if used properly. How would you go about getting a new tool like that? Would you seek out legal advice and talk with management? Would you adjust safety practices? Would you educate your workforce and your contractors? The FAA is not an enforcement agency, so there are now tons of drone hobbyists out there who often have no idea what they’re doing. There are also about 100,000 licensed commercial operators in the United States. Believe it or not, current regulation makes it very simple to become commercially licensed to fly a drone even if you do not know how to turn a drone on, to say nothing of flying a particular model safely. If your business relies on outside vendors for drone work, it is still difficult to sort out who is safe and who isn’t. A good start before hiring any drone vendor would be to ask to see their UAS Safety Management System documentation. If you get a blank look, keep shopping!

When I’m speaking at conferences, I always ask how many people have had their smartphone die on them when it was reporting 10 percent battery life. About 30 percent of people usually raise their hands. I tell them that drones are basically flying smartphones. You have to assume that at some point, something’s going to go wrong, especially as you scale. It is important to decide on the level of risk you’re willing to accept, and more importantly, what you can do to mitigate it. What risk matrix is in place to evaluate site risk? What checklists are in place to prevent common human and electronic error? What happens if, despite risk mitigation, the drone still causes an accident? Are the pilots trained to deal with that properly? What’s the chain of command? Do your employees know what sorts of accidents need to be reported to the FAA? It’s not incredibly onerous; it can definitely be navigated. But a lot of people don’t pay attention to it. They just get the drone and start using it, and when the drone lands in someone’s pool or causes a car accident, they may have no plan or insurance. That’s when an organization can get itself into trouble. Think through how to involve the communications, risk management, and cybersecurity people in your organization. 

Despite all this, it’s still worthwhile. It takes resources, but the value is so high that we work through it. Drone use is going to become a standard practice for utilities, so we still needed to make the rules around it. Municipalities may have contractors that are using drones without their knowledge. It is better to have policies in place so as to make sure that they are operating those drones with a license and in a safe and legal manner. 

Chris Kahn is senior GIS manager at American Water. He can be reached at