(Editor’s Note: Innovator and I Deliver awards at Xcel Energy reward performance when teams and employees deliver greater-than-expected results. Xtra is running a series of articles on select winners.)
Drones are now regularly flying beyond the line of sight of operators in an industry-first endeavor at Xcel Energy that is breaking new ground in the use of the technology.
The company received Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval earlier this year and has since been proving the technology along stretches of transmission lines in northern Colorado. It hopes to greatly expand the use of drones in other parts of the service territory later this year.
“Since mid-summer, we have flown beyond-the-line-of-sight missions every month in the Denver area,” said Eileen Lockhart, program manager. “We have been able to establish the success of our drone operations over more than 50 miles of transmission lines in a designated area.”
Eventually, the company could use the technology to survey portions of its more than 320,000 miles of electric and natural gas infrastructure, ensuring the safety and reliability of its energy system and saving plenty of money.
The effort will reduce the number of helicopter flights needed for line inspections, reaping both environmental and safety benefits, she said. It also will save the company about $1.3 million in O&M costs through 2020, with more cost savings to come in the years ahead.
For its efforts, a cross-functional employee team recently received the company’s coveted Innovator Award. The team developed a unique partnership with the FAA to help expedite the beyond-line-of-sight waiver. Its efforts entailed an exhaustive process – requiring more than 1,000 miles of test-flight demonstrations and an 800-plus-page application.
At an event this past fall, Xcel Energy leaders joined local, state and federal officials in celebrating the milestone flights and watching a drone as it inspected transmission lines near Fort St. Vrain Generating Station in Platteville, Colorado.
Using advanced command-and-control technology, they observed licensed pilots remotely operate a small, 35-pound drone along the lines. Equipped with two cameras, the drone collected data on the condition of the power lines and transmission towers along parts of the 50-mile route.
Drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), offer the advantage of an aerial perspective controlled from the ground, as well as significant improvements in data quality and gathering, Lockhart said. Drones also can fly slower and get much closer to a line than a helicopter – looking for things like broken cross-arms, vegetation encroachment and other aspects that could affect the health of the transmission system.
During inspection flights, a pair of cameras mounted on a drone – one faced forward and one back – takes multiple images every second from pre-set angles. Crews then look at the data to determine possible issues.
The drone flies between two vans, spaced miles apart. Each vehicle has a pilot in command and an observer. The pilot positions the drone over the line, then starts it on its way. The second van eventually picks up control at the other end of the flight and lands the drone.
“Our sights are now set on a much greater use of drones moving forward,” Lockhart said. “We have flown all parts of the test line to validate the technology, improve operations, and prepare to move beyond Denver and into a larger footprint in our service territory.”
The company hopes to eventually set up a series of drone inspection flights, traveling from substation to substation over distances of 30 to 50 miles. Amending the company’s existing FAA waiver to expand uses to rural areas would present a huge opportunity for the company, she said.
With an amended waiver, the company could then set out to fly upwards of 2,500 miles of lines in multiple states. FAA approval could come as soon as April or May.
However, the company effort also has its long-term sights set on urban areas, as well. Xcel Energy is a key player in the latest effort from the FAA on its National UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP).
This program is an opportunity for state, local and tribal governments to work with private sector entities, such as drone operators or manufacturers, to accelerate safe integration of the technology into the National Airspace System.
Through this pilot program, Xcel Energy and the 35 other entities will focus on addressing safety issues and developing protocols for beyond-visual-line-of-sight missions – during flights over people and urban areas, including at night.
Ten different states are participating in the IPP program, and dozens of different use cases are being tested and developed. Examples include delivery of packages, delivery of lifesaving medical equipment, critical infrastructure inspections and beyond-line-of-sight operations in urban environments.
Xcel Energy is a partner with the State of North Dakota, helping develop beyond-line-of-sight requirements within urban environments for critical infrastructure security, inspections and maintenance.
“This technology allows us to take many of the benefits of manned aviation and perform operations safely from the ground,” Lockhart said. “It’s a new world that we’re excited to be a part of – and the safety, customer and cost-saving impacts alone are huge.
“We anticipate a significant cost reduction from our current inspection methods,” she added. “And we’re getting much more concrete data than before, which will greatly enhance system reliability.
“In some ways, it’s the first time we’re getting a really close look at our system,” she said. “This technology will enhance our operations in many ways and transform the utility industry.”
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