Xcel Energy Becomes First U.S. Utility to Fly Drones BVLOS for Ongoing Inspections

Xcel Energy is now operating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) for ongoing inspections of transmission lines near Denver—a first for the industry.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted Xcel Energy special permission to conduct the BVLOS flights under a waiver earlier this year, according to a news release. The waiver allows the company to commercially operate a drone without visual observers or a chase aircraft.

Xcel Energy, along with local, state and federal officials, celebrated the milestone earlier last week by watching as the drone inspected electric power lines near Ft. St. Vrain Generating Station in Platteville, Colorado.

“Today’s flight takes us a step closer to fully integrating unmanned aircraft into our operations,” Xcel Energy Chairman, President and CEO Ben Fowke said, according to the release. “This innovative technology is revolutionizing our work by improving the safety, efficiency and cost effectiveness of maintaining and protecting the grid for our customers.”

For these inspections, pilots are using advanced command-and-control technology to remotely operate a small, 35-pound drone equipped with two cameras. The system is flying along a 50-mile route to collect data on the condition of power lines and transmission towers.

When these transmission inspections are completed, Xcel Energy and its partners will work with the FAA to extend operations to other states the company serves. Partners include Harris Corporation, Northern Plains UAS Test Site, Phoenix Air UNMANNED, LLC and Altus Intelligence.

“Leading the development of unmanned aircraft builds on our longstanding commitment to safety for our workers, the public and the environment,” said David Eves, executive vice president, group president-utilities for Xcel Energy. “This is especially important in Colorado where inspecting power lines in the mountains and remote locations is challenging work.”