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Xcel Energy Acquires FAA Approval for BVLOS Drone Operations

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【Summary】Xcel plans to use powerful UAVs to monitor more than 320,000 miles of infrastructure, such as transmission lines and natural gas structures.

Michael Cheng    Apr 28, 2018 11:00 AM PT
Xcel Energy Acquires FAA Approval for BVLOS Drone Operations
author: Michael Cheng   

Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) drone operations are set to change the way UAVs are used in commercial and industrial markets. Regulations for BVLOS operations vary from country to country, with some governments heavily restricting such practices. 

In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) governs the testing and regulatory aspects of BVLOS drone operations. The organization is in the process of extending and opening such guidelines to various companies in the industrial sector.

One of these businesses is Xcel Energy – Colorado's largest utility company. Xcel plans to leverage powerful UAVs to monitor more than 320,000 miles of infrastructure, such as transmission lines and natural gas structures.

Servicing 1.4 Million Local Residents

The company intends to deploy drones in and around Denver, Colorado. Applications for the company's quadcopters include surveying, inspections, maintenance and monitoring. Xcel will start BVLOS drone operations in the coming months. Operations will commence roughly 20 miles from the Denver National Airport.

For flight support, the business has tapped Harris, Northern Plains UAS Test Site, Phoenix Air UNMANNED, and Altus Intelligence. Licensed pilots will navigate the 55-pound quadcopter remotely. Xcel is the first utility establishment in the US to be authorized by the FAA for BVLOS operations.

"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, Xcel Energy chairman, president, and CEO.

"With this groundbreaking decision, we are advancing the use of technology that improves our efficiency and provides cost savings for our customers."

Xcel is also working closely with the FAA under a unique safety program, which expands drone operations outside of Colorado. The company will help local utility companies in other states improve BVLOS protocols.  

Traditional transmission line inspections are conducted using a helicopter and human workers. This is often time consuming and costly to support on a continuous basis. Xcel clarified it will not be replacing human operators with drones in the near future. Instead, it plans to explore safe and cost-effective solutions for power line inspections.

Last year, the business acquired approval from the FAA to deploy drones (within line of sight) for industrial plant inspections. The UAVs allowed Xcel to provide reliable maintenance services during rough weather conditions.

Revolutionizing Industrial Safety and Efficiency

Drones have a myriad of useful applications in industrial sectors. Most uses for UAVs are designed to boost safety and efficiency by replacing human operators. For example, monitoring and maintaining large-scale wind farms is extremely dangerous. Workers must climb up hundreds of feet using a ladder and harness.

Moreover, such tasks take time to complete and requires two individuals for safety. Drones can revolutionize this painstakingly slow and hazardous process, while reducing cost and time spent on inspections.

"Proper maintenance and repair of infrastructure enables the company to provide 24x7 services amid difficult climatic conditions," explained Zacks Equity Research.

"Drones ensure early detection of faults and damages of the electric transmission and distribution lines, which lower chances of outages and increase reliability of services."

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