By - Jim Vess

Xcel gets federal approval to inspect transmission lines and infrastructure using drones

Energize Weekly, April 25, 2018

Xcel Energy has received the first approval in the country from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the ongoing use of drones to inspect transmission lines and infrastructure in Colorado, according to the company.

FAA granted Xcel the okay to use unmanned drones, weighing less than 55 pounds, on a stretch of line 20 miles north of the Denver International Airport. The drones will be operated by licensed pilots using advanced command-and-control technology.

“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,” Ben Fowke, Xcel CEO, said in a statement. “With this groundbreaking decision, we are advancing the use of technology that improves our efficiency and provides cost savings for our customers.”

Xcel expects to seek additional approvals from the FAA to expand the use of drones into other states in which it operates, a company spokeswoman said.

The global market for the use of drones by the utility industry could reach $9.5 billion a year, according to a report by PwC, the accounting and business-consulting firm.

“Applying drone technologies to capture a variety of data on power plants, electrical substations or power lines is becoming a change driver for the entire power and utilities industry,” Massimo Pellegrino, a PwC partner, said in a statement.

In 2014, San Diego Gas & Electric received FAA approval for drone testing in a remote section of San Diego County. Chicago-based Commonwealth Edison got federal approval to use drones in the field on a trial basis in 2015.

In February, Baltimore Gas and Electric began a pilot in which drones are being used to inspect poles and lines.

Xcel’s approval is the first for ongoing use of drones for inspection, which could translate to significant savings, the Xcel spokeswoman said.

Using helicopters to survey lines costs $1,200 to $1,600 a mile, while using drones, beyond the line sight, will cost $200 to $300 a mile, Xcel said.

Among the companies Xcel is working with to develop the flights are Harris Corp., Northern Plains UAS Test Site, Phoenix Air Unmanned, LLC, and Altus Intelligence.

“The power and utilities sector faces numerous new challenges as it stands on the threshold of a digital revolution,” Michał Mazur, head of PwC’s Drone Powered Solutions group, said in a statement. “As companies reinvent their business models, drones are helping increase the reliability of energy production, transmission and distribution.”

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