At Xcel Energy, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) – commonly known as drones – are being integrated into our operations to enhance public and worker safety, improve reliability to our customers, and capture maximum efficiency gains.
The company’s UAS Program Office works within the company to deploy the technology across our operations. Some examples include inspections of transmission lines, substations, gas pipelines, power plant boilers, wind farm components and other applications.
Our UAS “proof of concept” missions over the past two years have demonstrated that UAS technology can enhance inspection and maintenance processes, potentially reducing customer cost and improving response times.
We operate and inspect 320,000 miles of electricity and natural gas infrastructure, thousands of substations, and dozens of power plants in the eight states we service. While UAS are not expected to completely replace other inspection methods, they will be an essential tool. In a variety of circumstances, UAS have advantages over trucks, helicopters, or fixed-wing aircraft, and they provide improved safety for workers, greater efficiencies, and flights that are less intrusive to communities.
We were one of the first energy companies to secure approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to conduct UAS missions and are breaking new ground in the use of the technology.
When the FAA began allowing the commercial use of drones, it granted waivers that required drones to be operated within the operator’s line of site and within 200 feet of the ground. In 2015, we received the needed FAA permissions to fly several research flights beyond those levels, becoming the first utility to conduct a “beyond line of site” UAS mission. Those flights have provided valuable data.
We recently received authorization from the FAA to test the effectiveness of using UAS for assessing areas of destruction to electric infrastructure.
In Mayville, North Dakota, alongside a team of researchers, we are conducting a series of test flights and analyses as part of a year-long research project. That involves staging disaster scenes that typically cause power outages to test the best way to survey and assess damage in order to restore service.
The research involves using two types of UAS – a large high altitude drone and a low-altitude drone. Both devices will be equipped with cameras, advanced data modeling, and analysis technologies.
The project is expected to further demonstrate the value of drones when disaster strikes in order to enhance public and worker safety, reduce outage restoration times, and limit disruption and costs to customers and communities.
The research partnership includes Xcel Energy, the University of North Dakota, Elbit Systems of America, General Electric, Northern Plains UAS Test site, and others.
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