James Manni

Program Manager, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)| Chattanooga, Tenn.

Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, you’d think a young James Manni would have been infatuated with horses. But it turns out, airplanes were his childhood passion – a passion he pursues today as head of TVA’s unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or “drones.”

“My father worked for UPS airlines, which gave me access to simulators and flight crews,” he remembers. “Louisville also has a big air show in the spring to kick off the Kentucky Derby, called Thunder over Louisville. That made a big impression on me and once I started flying in high school, I was hooked.”

Manni, program manager for TVA’s UAS Operations and Training group, attended Indiana State University to pursue a double major in Professional Flight and Aviation Management with the notion of becoming a commercial airline pilot. “I really enjoyed my time there; I flew all over the place,” he says. “But while I was in school, I discovered something that would present better opportunities for me in the next evolution of the aviation industry: drones.” 

Manni transferred to Middle Tennessee State University, where he graduated from one of the first UAS degree programs in the nation. While there he became familiar with TVA and its endless potential uses for drone technology.

Since coming to the company in June 2018, he’s turned a lot of that potential into reality, and he’s got plenty of examples.

“Recently we were working with Transmission on a right of way in Henderson, Tennessee, and they weren’t sure whether they’d be able to drive out to the structures to install needed fiber,” Manni says. “Based on drone footage, they were able to decide a helicopter install would be more environmentally friendly and save $500,000 in matting costs.”

Plus, Manni does a lot of inspections: Drones can keep Transmission and Telecommunications employees from climbing tall towers, providing reliable data and cutting risk to human health. “If we can keep the guys on the ground, and have data available over time, that’s a big win for everyone.”

Drones are as effective indoors, as out. “We use them during outage season at the combustion turbine and combined cycle gas plants,” Manni says. “We can go into the nooks and crannies of a heat recovery steam generator without having to build scaffolding. We can get 4K footage without dangling a guy off a basket to inspect chimneys as well.”

Another example: “They had an issue in the past at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant with cracked welds inside a condenser. The condenser is a congested box with confined tubes—you can’t really see everything if you’re performing an inspection by hand. But the drone is small and nimble and can see fine details. This past fall, we were able to perform a condenser inspection at Sequoyah Nuclear Plant, evaluating over 500 welds in the process. We get empirical results without putting folks at risk.”

Super Sonic

Nuclear, Transmission, Surveying, Telecommunications, Hydro, Fossil, Natural Gas, Communications… and that’s just the short list of Manni’s TVA clientele. His department has even helped TVA Police searching for lost hikers. There is a unique mix of safety, data and cinematography the drones can offer. And as word gets around, the list of drone capabilities just gets longer.

Manni’s department has grown from a skeleton crew flying three drones, to a 4-man operation with 25 aircraft of all sizes and abilities. The UAS team has also trained an additional 23 TVA drone pilots. He estimates that to date they’ve saved the company $1.2 million.

Which doesn’t give Manni, 25, a lot of time for recreation. “I’m married to my job right now, but that’s not a bad thing—we have a lot of fun.”

When he does get out, he enjoys the amenities of living in Chattanooga. “I take advantage of the outdoors, the hiking and camping,” he says.

And when he takes to the skies at the controls of a regular airplane, he remembers what he loves about manned flight, too. “There is a strong sense of freedom and amazement when you’re cruising along several miles above the earth. The sense of adventure is tremendous.”

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