Diversified drone services company Phoenix Air Unmanned (PAU) surpassed the 13,000 mark for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights during another phase in its long-running aerial inspections of Xcel Energy transmission infrastructure.
PAU said it had cleared the 13,000 BVLOS flight count in late August after a series of missions inspecting Xcel Energy sites, work the company first began back in 2019. Those outings are carried out in annual spring and summer campaigns, inspecting infrastructure covering 18,000 miles and inspecting 5,300 miles of those assets in 2021 alone.
PAU’s BVLOS operation without human monitors took place under a two-year Federal Aviation Admiration (FAA) waiver Xcel Energy obtained in 2019 and had extended an additional 24 months after the activity proved both effective and safe.
While important to its own service for its wide range of clients, PAU said any kind of regular BVLOS operations – and the approvals enabling them – will be vital to beyond-the-horizon flight without visual observaters becoming routine in coming years.
“Whether the approval is site-specific or as wide as 18,000 miles, each approval drives the regulatory process towards a standardized format,” said PAU managing director, Will Lovett. “The work of the Xcel BVLOS program proves safe, effective UAS operations can be scaled to support the needs of the utility industry as long as there is support from our federal regulators. This team continues to be on the leading edge of complex operations with the intention of advancing beyond the bounds of Part 107.”
Under the terms of Xcel Energy’s FAA waiver, PAU flew BVLOS inspection missions with two types of drones – Freefly Systems’ Alta X cited as a particularly heavy lifter in capturing high-resolution imagery from the vast network of transmission line infrastructure.
Drones PAU flew on Xcel Energy BVLOS missions carried two Phase One IXM-100 cameras that captured over 3,000,000 100-megapixel photographs since flights commenced in 2019. Those shots are organized and delivered for analysis to eSmart Systems, a Norwegian start-up using artificial intelligence to assess each image for system cataloging and fault detection.
The data collected and analyzed gave the utility fast, accurate information on infrastructure condition that officials could act on immediately. Lovett said the usefulness of that information to Xcel Energy and its own uneventful work under the FAA waiver offers an example unto itself of how fast BVLOS operations have come in a short time – and where they need to go.
“In 2015 we piloted the initial UAS introductory flights for Xcel which led to scaling the program over thousands of circuit miles,” Lovett said. “What was once a few miles of inspections a day has grown to an average of 40 miles per day, with the highest being 124 miles by a single aircraft and crew. Much of the utility industry continues to wait on the FAA to open regulations that would provide this level of efficiency, but this is a program that has been on the leading edge of regulatory approvals since 2018.”