Xcel Energy, a large regional utility company based in Minneapolis, MN, announced yesterday that it has received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to perform electrical transmission line inspections using unmanned aerial systems flying beyond the line of sight of the drone pilot.
The company isn't new to drones: they've been using them for years and testing the use of drones for a number of inspection jobs. For example, in 2015 Xcel tested the use of drones to inspect the inside of the huge boilers uses in power plants. The company has also used 3D mapping techniques for land rights work, and started using drones in January of 2017 for visual line of sight power line inspections.
The latest permit lets the company routinely operate drones BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight), using a small unmanned helicopter that weighs less than 55 pounds and is operated by a licensed pilot. The company will start with BVLOS inspections on a transmission line about 20 miles north of the busy Denver International Airport.
Xcel plans to use advanced command-and-control technology to ensure safe operations. It's working on the project with Harris Corporation, Norther Plains UAS Test Site, Phoenix Air UNMANNED LLC, and Altus Intelligence. If all goes well with the Colorado inspection work, Xcel will work with the FAA to obtain permitting for BVLOS inspections in other states.
The company has good reason to want to automate the collection of maintenance data on its system: Xcel has over 320,000 miles of electric and natural gas infrastructure, thousands of substations, and dozens of power plants that need constant inspection.
Images via Xcel Energy