Xcel Energy, Colorado's largest utility company, plans to leverage powerful unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to monitor more than 320,000 miles of infrastructure, such as transmission lines and natural gas structures.
The company will deploy drones in and around Denver to survey, inspect, maintain and monitor infrastructure and operations.
Xcel will start Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) drone operations in the next few months, commencing approximately 20 miles from the Denver National Airport.
For flight support, the business has tapped Harris, Northern Plains UAS Test Site, Phoenix Air UNMANNED, and Altus Intelligence. Licensed pilots will navigate the 55-pound quadcopter remotely.
Xcel is the first US based utility to receive FAA authorisation for BVLOS operations.
"Xcel Energy is honoured to be the first utility to conduct flights that will enhance grid reliability and safety for our employees and the public," said Ben Fowke, Xcel Energy chairman, president, and CEO.
"With this ground-breaking decision, we are advancing the use of technology that improves our efficiency and provides cost savings for our customers."
Xcel is also collaborating with the FAA under a unique safety program, which expands drone operations beyond the borders of Colorado. The company will help local utility companies in other states improve BVLOS standards and protocols.
Transmission line inspections are traditionally conducted using manned helicopters, a time consuming and costly task. Using drones ris a more cost effective option that reduces risk to humans.
Last year, Xcel acquired approval from the FAA to deploy drones (within line of sight) for industrial plant inspections, which allowed the utility to continue with inspections during rough weather.
In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) governs the testing and regulatory aspects of BVLOS drone operations. The organisation is in the process of extending and opening such guidelines to various companies in the industrial sector.
"Proper maintenance and repair of infrastructure enables the company to provide 24x7 services amid difficult climatic conditions," explained Zacks Equity Research.
"Drones ensure early detection of faults and damages of the electric transmission and distribution lines, which lower chances of outages and increase reliability of services."