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California Utility Taps UMD-linked Drone Company in $50M Inspection Contract

By Robert Herschbach

As utility and energy companies seek improved ways of monitoring equipment to maintain power delivery amid rising environmental challenges, a Baltimore-based uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS) startup with links to the University of Maryland is stepping up.

MissionGO, which has worked with UMD researchers to pioneer a wide range of UAS applications, announced in October it had signed a three-year, $50 million partnership with Southern California Edison, under which it will provide UAS-based inspection services to the utility. It is among the world’s largest inspections contracts, the company said.

Approximately 15 million people California get their power from Southern California Edison, which is the largest subsidiary of Edison International. High temperatures and persistent drought in the region have increased the need for frequent inspections and a rapid response to malfunctioning equipment. In parched conditions, sparks from a single broken transformer can potentially ignite devastating fires. But sending human teams out to monitor equipment can be slow, laborious and costly.

MissionGO has been working with Southern California Edison for three years, with its UAS inspection team performing over 6,500 sorties and cataloging more than 1,200 hours of flight time. The team reviewed and captured data from 20,000 distribution poles and 4,000 transmission poles, helping to prevent wildfires and enhancing the utility’s capacity to carry out repairs.

MissionGO’s capabilities in part were forged through its original partnership with UMD. Several company professionals previously worked at the UMD UAS Test Site—now known as the UMD UAS Research and Operations Center (UROC)—where they helped trailblaze UAS capabilities in areas that include medical support, forestry and agriculture, disaster response, and search and rescue.

In 2019, UMD UAS Test Site pilots conducted the first UAS delivery of a live kidney for transplant, launching a drone that flew approximately three miles across downtown Baltimore to safely transport its cargo to a waiting patient. The mission was the brainchild of University of Maryland School of Medicine/University of Maryland Medical Center transplant surgeon Joseph Scalea, who would go on to co-found MissionGO with Baltimore entrepreneur Scott Plank ’88 and aviation specialist and retired navel officer Tony Pucciarella. Several Test Site personnel involved in the organ delivery mission, including Pucciarella (then director of operations) and chief pilot Ryan Henderson, subsequently created the founding team of MissionGO.

“MissionGO is a signature example of how universities can lay the groundwork for entrepreneurship,” said Matt Scassero, who directed the UAS Test Site at the time of the kidney delivery and now heads operations and outreach at Maryland Engineering’s MATRIX Lab, based at the University System of Maryland Southern Maryland. “This latest success by MissionGO bears testament to how much they have achieved within a relatively short time. When it comes to UAS applications, they are at the leading edge—and we at UMD are proud to have played a foundational role.”

MissionGO said it looks forward to collaborating with UMD as plans progress for a Chesapeake UAS Route Network that will ultimately enable on-demand UAS operations in the National Airspace System, opening up opportunities for crewed and uncrewed aircraft to safely operate in common airspace. UMD’s UROC is leading the initiative, which has strong support from the state of Maryland and other partners and stakeholders.

“We’ve made history before with the folks at MissionGO,” said UROC Director John Slaughter. “Now we’re engaged in another groundbreaking effort, and we expect them to be right there with us as plans transition into reality.”

drone in field

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