Utilities’ drone plans cleared for takeoff

Utility companies using drones for power line inspection

This post originally appeared on http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/columnist/2016/08/30/utilities-drone-plans-cleared-takeoff/88621556/.

[Editor’s Note: Sharper Shape filed waiver requests with the FAA on Monday. They’ve previously used drones to inspect power lines in Europe.]

“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.

“The (helicopter) fly-bys go quickly because they cost so much per hour,” Phillips said in an interview. “If you have a hovering operation (with a drone), you can get up there and take detailed pictures.”

Concerns over safety also drive utility interest in drone operations.

“Hovering in a helicopter with people in it is one of the riskier things you can do right next to a transmission line,” he said.

Sharper Shape’s waiver requests would allow the company to fly longer-distance drones in rural areas and lower-populated suburban areas, with an eye toward demonstrating the safety of the operations.

Like other drone operators, Sharper Shape claims features for its vehicles that minimize the risk of accidents, such as redundant communications between drones and their operators.

Tero Heinonen, Sharper Shape’s CEO, said his company would also use licensed aircraft pilots to operate the drones, exceeding the FAA requirement for flights done within an operator’s sight.

Hickling cautions that utilities still have some way to go before they incorporate drones as a regular part of their operations.

“Our members are required to go to their public utility commissions for approval, as they do with other investments,” he said. “They have to prove that they’re getting more than one dollar in savings for every dollar they’re spending.”

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