New York Power Authority Approves First Phase of a $37.2M Drone Program

A screen shot from an NYPA video shows a drone inspecting a power facility. Photo courtesy of the New York Power Authority.

WHITE PLAINS, New York—The New York Power Authority (NYPA) on July 27 approved the first phase of funding for a $37.2 million unmanned aircraft system program to roll out new inspection capabilities over the next five years and position the nation’s largest state utility as an industry leader in robotic initiatives.

Formalization and expansion of the program is aimed at improving the safety and efficiency of NYPA’s operations, reducing costs, and advancing NYPA’s role in leading efforts to realize New York’s clean energy future.

“The Power Authority has built up a significant drone program over the past few years and this expansion and support will help us use automated inspections to more safely and efficiently evaluate the state of our energy assets,” said NYPA Chairman John R. Koelmel. “Using new drone technologies coupled with expertise of our talented, asset-minded employees will allow for more real-time access to data and the ability to more quickly make informed decisions.”

The move follows recent announcements of expanded drone operations in New York City and in coastal areas of the state.

The Board of Trustees supported the concept of a five-year implementation plan and authorized an initial $9.6 million for foundational measures needed to enable current and future advancement capabilities. The $9.6 million includes costs for equipment, software, personnel, training, procurement, regulatory compliance, and contingency.

Drones and UAS have improved rapidly in recent years and are now essential tools that support the Authority’s operations. Planning for a formal drone program began in 2019 when policies and procedures were developed to guide drone use. In 2021, a drone program manager was hired to create a unified program to help support the Authority’s strategic VISION2030 goals.

Since then, software has been procured and is being implemented to support drone pilots; training has been improved with nearly 100 pilots across the authority; and equipment is being standardized and procured leading the authority to have an expanded and advanced drone fleet.

The new program will enable consistency across the organization, develop standardized policies and procedures for mission planning and flying and generate a robust data platform that will allow for easily saving and viewing data that has been generated from drone missions.

The use of robotics and drones also allows NYPA to minimize exposing personnel to dangerous situations, such as climbing transmission poles or being near energized substation equipment. Drone usage also lessens the need for manned helicopter flights to inspect transmission lines.

Drones are equipped with high-resolution cameras and sensors that can detect faults and anomalies that may be invisible to the human eye, ensuring potential hazards are identified and addressed before they cause problems.

“By bringing more drones into our day-to-day operations, we can better harness the benefit of automation, safety and consistency across our assets while reducing costs and insuring a more reliable power supply,” said Peter Kalaitzidis, the Power Authority’s robotics program manager. “Inspections can be improved and expanded to include other areas and assets. With use of drone technology, we can more easily capture the real-world state of our operations to support real-time decision making.”

NYPA’s drones to date have primarily been used to evaluate transmission lines but their use has expanded this year to include dam safety, waterway usage and security supports at multiple sites. Future plans also call for drone use in inspections of bridges, dams, roofs and waterways.
Earlier this year, NYPA received its first federal approval to fly drones beyond the visual line of sight of the pilot in command. The FAA waiver enables NYPA to conduct fully remote drone operations such as asset and vegetative management inspections at its Blenheim-Gilboa Pumped Storage Power Project in Schoharie County.