Xcel Energy says it will be the first utility in the nation to routinely fly unmanned aircraft beyond the operator’s line of sight when it begins surveying transmission lines near Denver, Colorado. Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration announced it authorized the flights. The FAA’s decision to allow these flights is unprecedented in the utility industry.
“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.”
Starting this summer, the company will routinely operate 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. Xcel Energy will use advanced command-and-control technology to ensure safe operations while it inspects transmission lines.
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 our beyond line-of-sight operations in other states where the company provides electric service.
For several years, Xcel Energy has been collaborating with the FAA to develop operational and safety requirements for unmanned aircraft operations in the utility industry. Most recently, in January 2017, Xcel Energy entered into 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.