On the Horizon: Utility Drone Flights Beyond Visual Line of Sight

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is taking steps to more quickly enable flights of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) beyond visual line of the operator’s sight (BVLOS), though no changes are planned to a rule that governs visual line of sight in aircraft operations.

The agency that is responsible for the safety of civil aviation under the Department of Transportation on April 9 granted a BVLOS certificate of waiver to Xcel Energy—the first of its kind catering to utility inspection operations.

In a press release on April 18, Xcel said that starting this summer, the utility’s licensed pilots will operate a small BVLOS helicopter weighing less than 55 pounds within a designated area approximately 20 miles north of Denver International Airport. Xcel Energy said it will use advanced command-and-control technology to ensure safe operations while it inspects transmission lines.

But Xcel’s success is predicated on a number of factors, and it doesn’t necessarily herald a spate of similar approvals for other power companies or utilities.

The FAA told POWER on April 23 that it has received several other utility applications under Section 107.31 of Visual Line of Sight Aircraft Operations and Section 107.33(b)(c)(2) Visual Observer. However, it has not published a notice proposing changes to rules governing drone operations or sections requiring UAS visual line of sight rules, it said.

A Long Regulatory Runway

Section 107.31 of Visual Line of Sight Aircraft Operations is part of the small UAS rule (Part 107), which  was finalized on August 29, 2016, as an amendment to Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (in accordance with Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012), to allow safe operation of drones in the national airspace system.

Part 107 essentially requires a remote pilot, a visual observer, and a person manipulating flight controls of small UAS to be able to see the unmanned aircraft throughout the entire flight so as to know the drone’s location, determine its altitude and direction of flight, and observe airspace of other air traffic or hazards. Significantly, however, the rule also includes the option to apply for a certificate of waiver that allows for a small UAS operation to deviate from certain operating rules, though the FAA must approve that the proposed operation can be performed safely.

Waivable sections of part 107 include sections that govern visual line of sight aircraft operation (107.31); visual observer rules (107.33); operation of multiple small UAS (107.35); daylight operation (107.29); operation over people (107.39); and operation in certain airspace (107.41).

The FAA has issued 1,727 waivers since July 31, 2017, when Part 107 took effect, and it has received thousands of applications—so many that it streamlined the waiver application process by creating a “DroneZone portal.” Of the 1,727 waiver certificates issued, however, only 18 address visual line of sight aircraft operation under Section 107.31, owing to a waiver process that industry observers describe as “very arduous.” One observer told POWER that of more than 1,200 BVLOS waiver applications submitted by commercial drone operators to the FAA, 99% have failed to demonstrate an acceptable level of safety.

Why Xcel is Soaring Above the Industry

That’s one reason the FAA’s approval of Xcel Energy’s certificate of BVLOS waiver granted on April 9—which allows a remote pilot in command and the visual observer to conduct transmission line inspections—is widely considered an important breakthrough for the industry.

The use of UAS, which include aircraft (technically referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles [UAV]), ground-based controllers, and connecting communications systems—or more simply, drones—in the power and utilities sector has proliferated in recent years.

According to an October 2017 report from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the addressable market of drone-powered solutions in the world’s power and utilities sector is worth $9.46 billion. Drone use in the sector for a range of applications—from asset inspections to project construction—could shave operations and maintenance costs and boost reliability, as well as aid storm recovery, providing key resiliency benefits. (For an in-depth look at how drones are being used around the world to aid power company operations, see: “A Bird’s-Eye View: Drones in the Power Sector” in POWER’s January 2018 issue.)

Power and utility companies have pushed the FAA to approve BVLOS UAV flights for at least five years. Before the Part 107 was finalized in 2016, the industry sought permission from the FAA to fly drones in U.S. airspace, even if just for demonstration, through an exemption under Section 333. The industry says that BVLOS drone flights could scale operations by increasing the distance a UAS may be flown. Another key benefit it cites is that BVLOS could allow collection of more data per flight.

Xcel’s certificate waives Sections 107.31 and 107.33(b) and (c)(2) with special provisions. The company must only fly drones in Class G airspace—airspace not controlled by air traffic control service—and is limited to a maximum of 250 feet above ground level when operating within 100 feet of electrical transmission lines. The waiver also only applies to a narrow area over Xcel’s right of way, and within 30 nautical miles of Denver International Airport.

Beyond that, the drone’s remote pilot in command, manipulators of the controls and the visual observer must also be informed on the terms of the waiver. Additionally, the remote pilot must be proficient in visual line of sight operations and maintain a safety management system. Then, the company must ensure sufficient equipment that can identify non-participating aircraft and persons, maintain logs of drone maintenance, and ensure its drones have markings and lightings that are visible from three miles away. A preplanned flight path must also be verified, and the UAS’s ground control station must display in real time and available to the remote pilot.

Piloting BVLOS Initiatives

For Xcel, the FAA’s “groundbreaking” decision to allow BVLOS flights is “unprecedented in the utility industry,” and it will allow the company to advance its drone technology while improving efficiency and providing cost savings to its customers. “Xcel Energy is honored to be the first utility to conduct flights that will enhance grid reliability and safety for our employees and the public,” said Ben Fowke, chairman, president, and CEO, Xcel Energy on April 18.

However, the company, which said it works with government agencies, businesses, and universities to innovate and develop drone technologies for the benefit of customers, on April 23 told POWER that it secured the FAA’s first utility BVLOS waiver owing to a collaborative effort it has with the FAA to help it develop future rules and regulations to protect and maintain critical infrastructure.

“We were the only utility in the nation to enter into a ‘Partnership for Safety Plan,’ with the FAA in January of 2017,” Lisa Kiava, an Xcel spokesperson, said. “That project includes the FAA’s recent approval allowing Xcel Energy to operate drones beyond visual line of sight to inspect our electric transmission systems.”

The utility and the FAA’s “first-of-its-kind partnership” agreement to research drone operations to inspect critical infrastructure involves using UAS to inspect 20,000 miles of Xcel’s transmission lines in 10 states. Data it collects from diverse climates, conditions, and geographies could help shape the FAA’s future policies concerning grid inspections. Xcel Energy noted it has conducted several dozen outdoor missions using drones, including a BVLOS flight in 2016.

The FAA is also wrapping up a three-year-long partnership, dubbed the “Pathfinder Program,” with aerial intelligence company PrecisionHawk, news organization CNN, and BNSF Railroad to gather data to better understand BVLOS operations. PrecisionHawk plans to publish findings from that partnership with the FAA soon.


—Sonal Patel is a POWER associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine)


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