Last week Xcel Energy made a historic BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) drone flight.
On Wednesday, September 12 Xcel Energy, the largest utility company in Colorado, became the first U.S. utility to begin flying drones BVLOS as a regular part of ongoing inspections for power lines and other infrastructure.
Local, state, and federal officials were in attendance for the first BVLOS flights, which took place in a demonstration near the Fort St. Vrain Generating Station in Platteville, Colorado. The flights were conducted using a 35 pound drone equipped with two cameras.
The drone will be used to collect data on the condition of transmission towers and power lines along a 50 mile route. To conduct these BVLOS flights, Xcel Energy has worked in partnership with several industry leaders, including Harris Corporation, Northern Plains UAS Test Site, Phoenix Air UNMANNED, LLC, and Altus Intelligence.
Today’s flight takes us a step closer to fully integrating unmanned aircraft into our operations. This innovative technology is revolutionizing our work by improving the safety, efficiency, and cost effectiveness of maintaining and protecting the grid for our customers.
– Ben Fowke, CEO of Xcel Energy
For several years now, Xcel Energy has been working closely with the FAA to create operational and safety requirements for using drones in utility inspections.
In January of this year, Xcel Energy signed a Safety Partnership Program with the FAA to operate drones for powerline inspections within sight of operators. Four months later, in April, Xcel Energy was granted permission to fly BVLOS by the FAA.
Last week’s BVLOS flights were the first conducted since that permission was granted. For now, Xcel Energy is allowed to fly BVLOS regularly in an area about 20 miles north of Denver International Airport. Eventually, Xcel Energy has plans to expand their BVLOS operations into the other states where they operate, which include Texas, New Mexico, and Michigan.
BVLOS Waivers Picking Up Steam
The first company to receive permission for BVLOS flights from the FAA was the BNSF Railway Company back in August of 2016. This permission was granted through their membership in the FAA’s Pathfinder Program, which was formed to explore various types of flying that are currently prohibited by the Part 107 regulations, such as flights over people and beyond visual line of sight.
Since BNSF received the first BVLOS waiver in 2016, 21 more BVLOS waivers have been issued by the FAA (you can see the full list of companies granted BVLOS waivers by going to this page on the FAA’s site and typing “107.31” into the search bar).
Of all of those waivers, almost half—or 10 out of 22, to be precise—were issued this year, which is a good indicator of the progress being made on the regulatory front within the drone industry.
A Big Step Forward
Since drones first started being used for commercial applications, BVLOS has always been one of the drone industry’s main hurdles in expanding commercial drone operations across various sectors. Delivery, inspections, surveying—all of these operations would greatly benefit from BVLOS (and some of them, such as deliveries, are almost impossible without BVLOS).
Xcel Energy’s new BVLOS inspections are a significant step forward in bringing BVLOS operations to the entire drone industry, and mark an important moment in the development of drones for commercial use.
Excited about this expansion of BVLOS flights, or have something to say about BVLOS in general? Hop into this thread on the UAV Coach Community Forum to share your thoughts.