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Xcel Energy expanding use of drones to inspect power lines

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Powerlines
An expanded waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration will allow Xcel Energy to expand the use of drones to inspect power lines.
Stephanie Hemphill | MPR 2009

An expanded waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration will allow Xcel Energy to expand the use of drones to inspect power lines.

The utility has been using drones to inspect transmission lines under several limited waivers.

"It has been a challenge with all the separate waivers and it was hard to pick up the speed and momentum, but this really is a turning point for us on that transmission side of the effort," said

North Dakota Xcel manager Mark Nisbet. He said the company has permission to fly long distances over power lines in eight states, including Minnesota.

The waiver allows flight beyond visual line of sight, meaning the drone can fly beyond where the pilot on the ground can see it. Nisbet said Xcel has proven to the FAA it can safely operate drones beyond line of sight.

"There are other utilities that are working with it that have had the opportunity to do some of this under special circumstances during disasters, but this will make us first to fly with this official waiver on a routine basis,” said Nisbet.

Nisbet credits the success of the utility’s drone program to cooperative agreements with the North Dakota test site for unmanned aircraft, one of seven federally approved drone test sites across the country.

The utility is also working with small regional companies and large companies like Microsoft to perfect artificial intelligence which will be used to detect any potential problems that show up in video of power lines collected by drones. That means humans will only need to review problem areas, not miles of power line video. Nisbet said that technology holds great promise for making transmission line inspection more efficient, safer and cheaper.

Nisbet said Xcel can also for the first time fly drones over populated areas.

"This is the next step bringing it into town over the lines that go into neighborhoods and past the corner grocery store," he said.

That means drones can inspect urban power lines to look for trees that need trimming, poles that might be damaged, or lines that need repair.

Nisbet said it will take some time to develop safety protocols for flying over populated areas, but already drones are a tool used daily by the utility to inspect electric transmission lines in rural areas.