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Xcel pioneers utility drone inspections

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sometime next year, New Mexicans could see Xcel Energy drones flying above power lines and utility infrastructure around the state.

The timing depends on government approval of flights beyond ground operators’ visual line of sight. But Xcel is now working with the Federal Aviation Administration on a pilot project in Colorado that could pave the way for drones to become a standard part of utility inspections.

The company received an FAA approval in April to conduct tests this summer, making it the first utility nationwide to pioneer beyond-line-of-sight drone operations, said Kent Larson, Xcel vice president and group president for operations.

“We hope to begin similar operations in New Mexico next year,” Larson said. “We have more than $1 billion invested in transmission lines here, so it’s a major part of our operations.”

Drones are cheaper, safer and more reliable than traditional ground crew and helicopter inspections. The company maintains 320,000 miles of electricity and natural gas infrastructure in the U.S.

Drones could cut expenses by 80 percent compared with choppers, and 60 percent compared with foot patrols, Larson said.

“It would save customers money and improve safety,” he said. “They’re faster and more reliable.”

Safety is always a concern with choppers, especially in places like mountain ranges. And it’s hard for manned aircraft to get clear pictures of infrastructure.

“Drones can get up really close,” Larson said. “You can even see interference underneath lines.”

Harris Corp.’s unmanned helicopter conducts an aerial inspection of a solar facility for Xcel Energy at the Northern Plains UAS Test Site. (Source: Xcel Energy)

The company has experimented with in-sight drone flights since 2015, inspecting more than 1,000 miles of transmission lines. It uses ground chase vehicles and choppers to maintain line of sight.

It also inspects turbine blades on wind farms with drones. That’s something ground crews usually do with binoculars. When they find problems, they stop the turbines and send a person up the tower to rappel down to the blade for photos.

“With a drone, you can get within a few feet of problem spots and take photos at many angles,” Larson said.

Xcel’s pilot inspection project in Colorado could help the FAA establish rules and regulations to open the skies to all utilities across the country.

That’s something the industry is eagerly awaiting, said Joanne Esparza, director of New Mexico State University’s Physical Science Laboratory, which previously operated the FAA’s only certified flight test center nationwide. It’s now one of seven such centers in the country.

In recent years, NMSU helped the Electric Research Power Institute demonstrate how drones can be used to inspect power lines and generating systems.

“We’re working now with one utility, and we’re in discussions with others who have inspection challenges,” Esparza said. “Drones are a big thing for the entire energy industry, for electric infrastructure and for oil and gas operations.”

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