An expanded waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration will allow Xcel Energy to expand the use of drones to inspect power lines. The FAA’s relationship with North Dakota, a state with 760,000 people and ample farmland, allows for looser regulations. In North Dakota, if a drone malfunctions, it’s unlikely it will land in a neighborhood or collide with a piloted aircraft. The utility has been using drones to inspect transmission lines under several limited waivers.

Xcel Energy drone

“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 that the company has permission to fly long distances over power lines in eight states, including Minnesota.

Impact of this expansion

This waiver expansion is a good sign for other sectors. Drones remain a coveted technology in the autonomous last-mile delivery market – a market projected to grow from $12 billion (2019) to $91.5 billion by 2030. Because of the demands of online shopping, companies like Amazon Air, Google, Uber Eats and UPS all want to refine delivery efficiency and have sought approval to fly drones in urban areas at night beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). Permission has not yet been granted. The FAA views drones as they do airplanes, so they are put through the same safety and economic certification procedures.

Xcel Energy 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 the data collected by drones. Nisbet said that technology holds great promise for making transmission line inspection more efficient, safer and cheaper. They also informed that drones can now fly over populated areas for the first time.

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

Xcel Energy power line inspection