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When Melissa Russo’s boss Phil Carrillo told her he thought she should get her drone pilot license, she thought he was kidding. At the time, she worked on SCS’s Remote Control (RMC) team; selling drone services was a part of her job, but she had not thought of flying these unmanned vehicles herself.
Her thirst for competition kicked in when he turned the proposition into a bet. He was going after his pilot license himself; she bet she’d beat his score. They finished in a dead heat, but what started as friendly rivalry ended up bringing a new dimension to Russo’s job— a job that continues to expand in breadth as new opportunities turn up.
Today she not only flies, sells drone services, and teaches others how to sell and fly, but she’s helped bring geographical information systems (GIS) into RMC’s portfolio. How these technologies fit together is RMC remotely collects data from drones and different landfill systems. Then the GIS translates that data into maps, capturing a visual picture of how clients’ facilities’ systems are performing. The GIS piece is one of the latest chapters in the story of Russo’s evolving role (more to come on that).
Piloting is what especially gets her juices going.
“I love working with my team, supporting them in what they do. But when it comes to drones, I like the hands-on experience of flying myself more than telling other people how to do it.”
She controls these small aircraft from a device on the ground, sharply focused on her surroundings while keeping the drone in her sight at all times.
“You have to make sure there are no manned vehicles around; they have the right of way. And there’s a lot of continuous movement on landfills. You’re constantly aware of your surroundings. Is a truck coming? Am I in line with where dumping is going on?”
Flying drones takes muscle and mechanical aptitude.
The drone and case can weigh 45 pounds. And there are a lot of moving parts to assemble and calibrate.
Sometimes it’s manual work, pointing and rotating a remote controller to send a radio signal to tell the drone what to do. But more often, she pilots automated flights that she maps in advance and uploads the flight path specs into software that interfaces with the drone.
“When I’m flying drones, I can access areas where if I had boots on the ground, I couldn’t. I can go and explore just about anywhere, similar to when I dream— only it’s real,” she says.
With any task, she’s laser-focused, concentrating on one part of the picture at a time to grasp the details. She steps back and uses critical thinking, accumulated knowledge, and imagination to take on what’s before her.
The innovation process
“We’re pretty lucky with our timing; new and proven technologies are emerging quickly. I’m one of many SCSers with a deep knowledge of technology and practical experience in the solid waste industry. Together, we can make a difference because we understand the business and operational challenges very well. When I need an expert in another industry, I just reach out to a colleague. The learning process never ends, and each project helps me and my team constantly find better answers.
“My boss is more of a big-picture person; his ideas are huge and amazing. He comes to me with new ideas, and I figure out how to make them work and implement them,” Russo says.
She points to his idea to use proven GIS technology within RMC. She was already using GIS to map methane data, process topographic maps, and stockpile calculations. For instance, she integrates methane values into the GIS and overlaps them with imagery so her clients can zoom in on one well or get a large-scale view of the overall health of the gas collection system. But integrating GIS in new ways to incorporate multiple landfill systems would solve some expensive problems and, better yet, prevent even more expensive mitigation and repairs.
Expanding GIS applications to illustrate multiple landfill systems
“I know drones and how to process drone data. But now that we are expanding applications, I add more layers of landfill data, such as liquids, soil, the gas collection and control system (GCCS), SCADA, and surface emissions, to bring them into the RMC GIS platform. My colleagues are demonstrating these technologies at the SCS June Client Webinar.”
“I created a team of hand-picked SCS staff with both GIS and waste management backgrounds (and a whole lot of drive) to make the vision come to life,” she says. “That’s how we innovate, tight teams with access to nationwide expertise.”
Within six months of the project’s genesis, Russo and her team had integrated gas and liquid collection systems, other landfill systems, and asset management into the RMC GIS platform. She and her team now sell these applications nationwide.
Russo’s come a long way since joining SCS at age 21
In her mind, she grew up at the company. Before coming on board, she managed a shop in Manhattan Beach, California, while she began thinking about what to do next.
“I learned a lot about business and people. It was a stepping-stone – I discovered how to earn trust, build rapport, and sell. But in time, I decided I wanted a more professional job,” she recalls.
She went to work for a real estate company managing the SCS Engineers Long Beach office, where she would soon take an entry-level Accounts Payable position in SCS Field Services.
In time, she transitioned to the Health and Safety group, assisting in creating training material and managing truck fleets. Soon she was managing assets, among other firsts for her. By this point, she had developed enough software, accounting, and other administrative skills to step up fast.
Part of the job was keeping up with vehicle maintenance, so she often spoke with field staff. Many of them she already knew from her days working in the accounting department.
Growing with her SCS colleagues
“When I was in my first administrative roles, I supported many colleagues who were field techs or supervisors; they are project managers now. It feels as though we’ve grown up together, and we know and trust each other. We collaborate well and know that when we bring projects to each other that we will take care of each other,” Russo says.
She especially likes the RMC concept because remote control and automation enable her, her clients, and her team to work smarter, not harder because they leverage the technology to work for them.
“That means we can usually work from anywhere, giving all of us more time for family, friends, or allocating the time saved towards other needed to-dos. I’m up at five a.m. and, at times, may not finish work until nine at night. Somehow, us working women find the balance in between meetings, writing proposals, and answering emails; I have lunch with my two boys or take them to a park,” she says.
Bambi Lance, a veteran SCSer and her mother, works in the same business unit as Melissa does. “Mom’s been here for 16 years, and it’s interesting to have her perspective not only as my mom but as someone who knows SCS. She knows my department, and she knows me. She sees what I am doing and she along with management encourage me to do more and believe in myself.”
Russo reflects again on the concept of stepping-stones on the way to knowledge and maturity. I’m competitive and take on challenges, which has been a driving force in all I do today. It’s helped me take a personal inventory of how I am now versus the young Melissa,” she says.
She uses it to gauge her direction. And she uses it to connect to her staff. “I try to help them see you can turn almost any experience, into a positive. I want my team to see we are all learning and growing. They can, as I can, comfortably bring new ideas to the group and company, which often turn into new ways to help clients.”
She circles back to her decision to fly drones, explaining how it aligns with her career path from her first steps to today. “Becoming a pilot was a natural fit because it’s a new challenge. The craving to take on new tasks is how I grew from an accounting administrator to a project coordinator up to a business manager. It’s wanting to expand my knowledge, tackle new feats, and accomplish what I was not sure I could do. I like the challenge.”
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