Xcel Receives FAA Blessing to Fly BVLOS Power-line Drone Inspection

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The FAA recently authorized the first utility in the U.S. to fly drone mission beyond operator’s line of sight.

Drone inspection firm Xcel Energy received permission to survey power lines near Denver. The Minneapolis-based company will deploy drones beyond visual line of the operator’s sight within a designated area approximately 20 miles north of Denver International Airport.

Licensed pilots will remotely operate a small, unmanned helicopter weighing less than 55 pounds. The company will use command-and-control solutions to ensure safe operations during power-line inspections.

“Xcel Energy is honored to be the first utility to conduct flights that will enhance grid reliability and safety for our employees and the public,” said Ben Fowke, chairman, president, and CEO, Xcel Energy. “With this groundbreaking decision, we are advancing the use of technology that improves our efficiency and provides cost savings for our customers.”

To conduct the flights, the company is currently working with several industry leaders including Harris Corporation, Northern Plains UAS Test Site, Phoenix Air UNMANNED, LLC and Altus Intelligence. When the transmission inspections are completed in the Denver area, Xcel Energy will work with the FAA to extend beyond line-of-sight operations in other states where the company provides electric service.

The company has collaborated with the FAA to create operational and safety requirements for drone operations across the utility industry. Last year, Xcel Energy accepted a Partnership for Safety Program (PSP) with the FAA to operate drones for power line inspections within visual sight of operators.

“The work demonstrated how unmanned aircraft improve productivity and safety as the technology allows for inspections to be completed without the use of trucks, helicopters or other utility equipment. Xcel Energy inspects more than 320,000 miles of electricity and natural gas infrastructure to ensure the safety and reliability of its energy system,” an Xcel press release stated.

Drones have sparked a revolution within the energy sector as utilities deploy unmanned aircraft to save money and lives on hazardous, expensive tasks such as power-line and wind turbine inspections.

In 2017, a team comprised of AeroVironment, Dominion Virginia Power, the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership last week tested BVLOS powerline inspections using a satellite network and AeroVironment’s Puma, a military-grade, fixed wing drone.

In 2016, the University of Texas partnered with Indian drone-software company Arcturus Business Solutions to better pinpoint weaknesses and damage to transmission lines from the air.



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