Xcel Energy Receives FAA Permission to Fly Drones Out of Sight

© Northern Plains UAS Test Site Xcel Energy

Xcel Energy Inc., Colorado’s largest utility company, stated last week that they’ll be the first utility company in the country to use drones in surveying transmission lines. During the summer, the drones will assess these lines out of the sight of the operator and will carry out regular surveys of transmission lines about 20 miles north of Denver International Airport.

The Minneapolis-based utility has about 1.4 million customers, released this statement on the heels of the FAAs decision to allow the flights.  The company is the very first utility to operate drone flights that will help improve the networks’ safety and security for its employees and the general public stated the CEO, Ben Fowke.

With the groundbreaking decision, Xcel is encouraged to move forward with the use of drone technology that will improve its performance and also offer massive savings for its customers.  Drones will not totally replace other inspection systems in use, but the company has explained that because drones have a better advantage over fixed-wing aircraft, trucks, and helicopters, they will make a huge difference in the operations.

For example, drones will provide better protection for workers, can survey a larger area faster, and will be less intrusive to residents of the locations being surveyed.  The company has been testing this use case for years.  In 2015, the company carried out their first test flights of drones. The drones were flown into the boilers of three huge power plants to inspect the equipment in the plants.

They also flew another drone into the Zuni power plant’s boiler. The Zuni plant is a small plant located in Denver’s downtown and runs on fuel oil or natural gas to generate electricity.  Early last year, Xcel worked with the FAA, through its Partnership for Safety Program, to deploy drones for power line inspections. But during this time, the operators had to have the drones in their line of sight at all times.

But with the latest permit issued by the FAA, drones can now be operated out of the line of sight of the operator. This is a new development from the FAA.  The surveys will make use of small drones that weigh less than 55 lbs and are being flown by licensed pilots, stated Xcel.  The company said that it plans to make use of superior technology to make sure that operations are safe during all inspections of transmission lines.

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