August 29 has been marked in the calendars of the commercial drone industry for months, and even though it may have seemed like business as usual for the rest of the world, it was a big day for the electric power industry.
As the effective date for Federal Aviation Administration Part 107 drone regulations, clear rules were established for visual line of sight flights for drones weighing less than 55 lbs.
What’s more, the Part 107 regulations now allow businesses to apply for waivers to fly drones for unique use cases. For the utility industry, this means that companies can apply for waivers to fly drones for beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) inspections. BVLOS flights are able to travel 10-20 miles, compared to roughly 1,500 feet (one-third of a mile) under visual-line-of-sight regulations.
In recognition of this milestone, Sharper Shape, the global leader in drone-based asset inspections, was one of the first businesses to submit an application to fly BVLOS drones for electric company line inspections. Coordinated by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) and SkySkopes, a drone service provider in North Dakota, this waiver will allow the EEI-Sharper Shape partnership members to demonstrate and develop commercial BVLOS flights for utility asset inspections.
The waiver application covers all the major use cases Sharper Shape and EEI members have defined as the nationwide, consolidated basis for large-scale commercial deployment of drones. The drone used will be the new Sharper A6, the world’s most advanced BVLOS inspection drone in the category below 55 pounds.
The Benefits of BVLOS Drone Flights for Energy Grid Inspections
Currently, U.S. electric companies collectively spend between $6 billion to $8 billion a year to inspect and maintain the vegetation surrounding their power lines, via helicopters and ground crews. But even with these inspection methods, it is hard for electric companies to survey long stretches of power lines all at once, as well as difficult to access remote areas of the line. The safer and more efficient inspection option for vegetation management is the use of BVLOS drones.
According to Sharper Shape’s data and research from conducting energy grid inspections via long-distance drone flights in Europe, BLVOS drone inspections of power lines are at a minimum four times more cost-effective than flights in line of sight of the operator.
BVLOS flights can also capture big data that helps electric companies make informed decisions about component maintenance and vegetation management. For example, Sharper Shape cites its gathering of 20 terabytes of data for a European customer, capturing detailed information of 10 million trees to analyze any vegetation risks to power lines. Such data is automatically analyzed to prioritize what risks need attention in the current fiscal year and beyond ― an improvement from today’s asset inspections done manually from the ground.
“Inspections via long-distance small (under 55 pound) drones will help us improve the reliability, resiliency and security of the energy grid, which ultimately benefits our customers,” said Michael Lamb, vice president, Xcel Energy operating services and enterprise transformation office. “This waiver is a major step toward industry-wide BVLOS asset inspections.”
Overall, BVLOS drone inspections are safer and allow electric companies to identify risks to the energy grid faster and more efficiently.
Xcel Energy and Others Participate in SkySkopes’ Day of Test Flights
In conjunction with the BVLOS waiver application, SkySkopes planned a day of drone flight demonstrations with its many partners, including Sharper Shape, EEI and Xcel Energy.
A demo drone inspection flight on the Xcel Energy Bison Substation introduced the new Sharper A6 drone. The demonstration was conducted in the visual line of sight of the operator, since the BVLOS waiver was just submitted for processing that day.
The A6 drone can collect a comprehensive variety of useful data (including information from its HD cameras, infrared sensors, corona detector, LiDAR sensor, etc.), and is the only platform capable of doing so in a single flight. The sensors have been carefully selected and integrated into the Sharperscope 5.0 system that Sharper Shape has engineered specifically for BVLOS utility inspections and which syncs directly to the Sharper Shape cloud.
Notably, the Sharper A6 uses four redundant cellular networks to make it virtually impossible for the drone to lose communication with ground control operators. Sharper Shape leverages the LTE commercial multi-billion-dollar networks, while other vendors use point-to-point (P2P), which cannot communicate beyond line of sight, or satellite connection, which is expensive and experiences invariable latency which increases the response time and impedes a pilot’s ability to make quick adjustments during the flight.
After a full day of test flights, a fleet of drones hit the sky as the grand finale of the event.
Major local utility Xcel Energy participated in the day’s events and has been at the forefront of testing drone flights in the utility industry. “This day marks a positive step for the electric power industry on behalf of our customers,” said Lamb. “Commercial BVLOS flights for energy grid inspections will allow us to provide even better service for customers, and we look forward to continuing to pioneer drone inspections in the industry, alongside SkySkopes and Sharper Shape.”
Sharper Shape, EEI and SkySkopes are optimistic to test BVLOS flights in the U.S. by the end of the year. Sharper Shape was the first to conduct commercial BVLOS drone asset inspections in Europe, and has created a concept of operations for BVLOS inspections with U.S. electric companies under the EEI-Sharper Shape partnership. This waiver application is a major next step toward a future where the drone and electric power industries collaborate to provide safer and more efficient maintenance of the energy grid.