The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has given authorization for utilities to fly drones beyond the operator’s line of sight for energy infrastructure inspections. Xcel Energy became the first utility to do so when it begins surveying transmission lines near Denver this summer.
The company says that it will routinely operate drones beyond the operator’s sight within a designated area approximately 20 miles north of Denver International Airport. For these flights, licensed pilots will remotely operate a small, unmanned helicopter weighing less than 55 pounds. Xcel Energy says they will use advanced command-and-control technology to ensure safe operations while inspecting transmission lines.
The FAA rule change is expected to help lower costs for Xcel, which could in turn benefit the utility’s customers. Currently Xcel has more than 3.5 million electricity customers and 1.9 million natural gas customers in eight Midwestern and Western states.
“Xcel estimates that flying drones beyond line of sight will eventually cost between $200 and $300 per mile compared with helicopter flights that cost an average of $1,200 to $1,600 per mile,” Utility Dive’s Peter Maloney reported.
Using drones to inspect power lines and gas pipelines first got FAA approval in 2015. Prior to that, utilities were limited to trucks and helicopters. Xcel says it needs to inspect over 320,000 miles of electricity and natural gas infrastructure. The investor-owned utility has more than 20,000 miles of transmission lines alone.
Drones promise better service at lower costs for the industry, Maloney points out, but added that those costs cannot be realized if a drone still needs a line-of-sight operator every few miles.
In order to conduct the initial flights this summer, Xcel is working with the technology company Harris Corporation, the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site, the a commercial unmanned aircraft system operator Phoenix Air Unmanned, and drone manufacturer Altus Intelligence.
When the transmission inspections are completed in the Denver area, Xcel Energy says they plan to work with the FAA to extend beyond line-of-sight operations to other states.
Drones are taking off throughout the energy industry. Earlier this year, Duke Energy used drones to help physically restring power lines in Puerto Rico, which has been struggling with blackouts since Hurricane Maria devastated the island last fall.
“It made our jobs easier, more efficient and a lot safer,” Duke Energy vice president of distribution, construction, and maintenance Rufus Jackson said at the time.
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