At his first two jobs out of college, Eric Schwartz was designing airport fire trucks and irrigation systems. He wasn't thinking about a future in the energy industry. He wasn't thinking about drones, hurricanes, or emerging technologies. But when Schwartz launched his career at Florida Power & Light Company (FPL) in 2010, he found an opportunity to make innovation the focus of his career.
“I always knew I wanted to be an engineer; I was always trying to fix things,” said Schwartz. “I love just making a difference and being able to help people.”
Now Manager of Technology & Innovation FPL Air, Schwartz holds 13 patents including several associated with drones, robotics, and mapping technology. Six more are pending.
Early in his FPL journey, Schwartz worked in service planning in West Palm Beach and served on FPL’s Power Delivery team, which is tasked with continuing to provide customers with the nation’s most reliable service by building a stronger, smarter and more storm-resilient grid.
In 2015, when FPL created the Smart Grid & Innovation team, Schwartz was one of the first two members. They were tasked with researching future technologies to help the company work safer, smarter and improve reliability.
“Of all that innovation, drones just had the most potential,” said Schwartz. “The industry exploded, and it went from a hobby at the company to now a full-fledged business unit.”
FPL started using drones operationally in 2016. They are used to assess overhead power equipment and identify areas of concern before outages can occur. After severe weather or a storm, drones can help FPL assess damage so that power can be restored safely and as quickly as possible.
In 2022, FPL launched FPLAir One, a fixed-wing drone resembling a small plane. FPLAir One made history by becoming the first-ever large-scale drone of its size flown for commercial use outside of a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) test site when it launched in August and was used operationally following Hurricane Ian and Nicole. FPLAir One is remotely operated by trained pilots in the FPLAir Mobile Air Command Center, which doubles as the drone's transport to its takeoff location. The drone carries several hundred pounds of advanced sensors and equipment that helps FPL collect a variety of data types over the course of a single flight. Schwartz and all FPLAir One pilots must be certified private pilots because of the size of the drone. He said while he earned the license, he won't be piloting.
“I wanted to learn first-hand about the true difficulties of flying,” said Schwartz. “If I was going to ask pilots to fly in certain conditions, I wanted to understand the risks before I put my own employees in that same risk.”
Shortly following its debut, FPLAir One became a valuable tool following Hurricane Ian. After the devastating storm left roads impassable, FPLAir One conducted seven flights with a total flight time of 24.9 hours and traveled more than 2,200 statute miles. This information, and footage captured by the company’s fleet of smaller drones, helped FPL restore power to two-thirds of its customers within 24 hours and to essentially restore power to the more than 2.1 million customers impacted by Ian.
“It was great to be able to prove what we said we could do,” said Schwartz. “It was really exciting to see our team as a whole working together.”
Although earning a pilot’s license and working with drones may seem like hobbies to some, Schwartz said his most rewarding activity is spending time with his three sons.
“I have 11-year-old twins and one about to turn six,” said Schwartz. “My kids are my hobby.”
Smart Grid & Innovation Vice President Helena Hernandez said Schwartz exemplifies the word innovation.
“He constantly sees new possibilities of leveraging technology to improve the work for our customers and works relentlessly to make these possibilities become a reality,” said Hernandez. “Years ago, Eric was a single reliability engineer who decided to use drones to assess our distribution lines, and last year FPLAir drones flew 142,000 flights for the company.”
Whenever Schwartz speaks to groups about FPL, he emphasizes that it is a company where you can spend your entire career.
“We really live by our principles: treat people with respect, do the right thing, and have a strong commitment to excellence,” said Schwartz. “It's not just a checked box. All these people who stay for so long, there's a reason. Everyone works as a team and it's great, it's like a family.”