Electric utilities across the U.S. are wasting no time taking advantage of new FAA rules authorizing use of drones for commercial purposes.
“We’ve certainly heard from our members that they’re excited about this technology,” said Chris Hickling, the director of government relations for the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the trade group for investor-owned utilities in the U.S.
“They see it as part of building a smarter infrastructure. We see it as an area that’s going to continue to grow.”
More than 20 utilities have already tested unmanned aerial vehicles for inspecting transmission and distribution lines for damage from storm and normal wear and tear, using temporary rules from the Federal Aviation Administration, and are now ready to demonstrate them even more.
Among the early practitioners are Duke Energy, Exelon, National Grid, Southern Company, Pacific Gas & Electric and Xcel Energy.
“You can think of a scenario where in the not-too-distant future, utilities could put some of the smaller drones on every single lineworker’s truck, so that when they go to sites, they could zip it up and down a pole to do inspections that would normally require someone climbing all the way up there,” Hickling said in an interview.
The new rules allow companies in the electric power and other sectors to fly drones weighing no more than 55 pounds below 400 feet without obtaining a waiver from the FAA.
The flights would be conducted by certified commercial drone pilots, and they would be limited to ones done within sight of the operators.
That latter restriction would crimp plans by utilities to use drones for longer-distance inspections of power lines, but the agency is providing for waivers of that and other conditions set in the new rules – and companies are already acting on that option.
Among them is Sharper Shape, a Palo Alto, Calif., company that conducts miles-long inspections of power lines in Europe.
Sharper Shape filed waiver requests with the FAA within hours of the agency’s release of the new rules on Monday, working with EEI, Xcel Energy, Montana-Dakota Utilities, Minnkota Power Cooperative, a flight operations company called SkySkope and others.
Sharper Shape says its beyond-line-of-sight flights can travel up to 20 miles, compared to about 1,500 feet under the new FAA regulations.
“With hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission lines and millions of miles of distribution lines” in the U.S., “not to mention generation assets, there are limits to visual-line-of-sight inspections,” Hickling said.
The longer drone flights can cut costs of inspections for utilities, which typically use helicopters for such operations, and provide them with better images and data, according to Andrew Phillips, the director of transmission and substations research at the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit organization funded by the electric power industry.