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Xcel expands use of drones to inspect power lines

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Xcel Energy is expanding the use of small drones to inspect power lines and other infrastructure, becoming the first utility in the nation to get Federal Aviation Administration approval to routinely fly drones beyond where a pilot can see the aircraft.

FAA rules generally require a pilot or observer keep the aircraft in sight at all times for safety. The FAA waiver will allow Xcel to inspect miles of power lines in a single flight.

"Using drones and actually having beyond visual line of sight will allow us to do that much more efficiently, probably a quarter of the cost. When we do it by airplane it's more than $1,000 a mile, so you can see if we have 20,000 miles the savings can be substantial," said group operations President Kent Larson.

Xcel is also partnering with the Federal Aviation Administration to develop operational and safety requirements for drone use by utilities. 

Licensed pilots will fly the small helicopters that weigh less than 55 pounds. The drones will first be used on a 50 mile stretch of power line in Colorado, then starting next year, the company plans to expand drone inspections to other states where it has infrastructure.

Xcel regularly inspects more than 320,000 miles of electrical and natural gas lines in eight states.

Larson said another significant benefit of drones will be inspecting power line damage when storms knock out electricity.

"With drones we can go out, survey an area, quickly assess it. We'll know what kind of equipment to bring when we go out there, what kind of materials, and our restoration processes will be much quicker than they've ever been before," said Larson.