Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy has inked approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the operator.
Now, through its new Part 107 waiver, the company claims it will be the first utility in the nation to routinely fly drones BVLOS when it begins surveying transmission lines near Denver.
“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,” says Ben Fowke, chairman, president and CEO of Xcel Energy. “With this groundbreaking decision, we are advancing the use of technology that improves our efficiency and provides cost-savings for our customers.”
Starting this summer, the company will routinely operate UAS BVLOS within a designated area approximately 20 miles north of Denver International Airport. Licensed remote pilots will operate a small unmanned helicopter weighing less than 55 pounds. Xcel Energy says it will use command-and-control technology to ensure safe operations while it inspects transmission lines.
To conduct the flights, the company is currently working with several partners, including Harris Corp., the 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 its BVLOS operations in other states where the company provides electric service.
For several years, Xcel Energy says it has been collaborating with the FAA to develop operational and safety requirements for UAS operations in the utility industry. Most recently, in January 2017, the company entered into a Partnership for Safety Program with the FAA to operate drones for power line inspections within the visual line of sight. The work demonstrated how drones can 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.