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Power Company Ameren Successfully Tests BVLOS Inspections in a 60+ Mile Flight

BY Zacc Dukowitz
25 January 2019

Ameren, a power company based in St. Louis, MO, has successfully conducted testing of BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) drone flights to monitor their power lines. The test involved the use of a drone to inspect over 60 miles of lines in a single, non-stop BVLOS flight.

Ameren-BVLOS

Photo credit: Ameren

Ameren worked with Black & Veatch and Collins Aerospace to obtain a BVLOS waiver (also known as a 107.31 waiver) from the FAA so that they could conduct this test flight.

Thousands of miles of high-voltage power lines lie within the places that Ameren serves, many of them in rural areas. Using their BVLOS waiver, Ameren wanted to see whether inspections done by drone could provide a replacement solution for their current methods of inspecting power lines, which are usually conducted either manually or by helicopter.

The result? The test was a big success.

Ameren was able to collect high-resolution infrastructure integrity data for all 60 miles of the power lines being inspected, flying a drone BVLOS to conduct the inspection.

We are pleased with the outcome of this 60-mile flight. Ultimately, the successful deployment of BVLOS drones could revolutionize how Ameren assesses and evaluates the condition of our systems.

– James Pierce, Lead for Ameren’s Central Unmanned Aircraft System Department

Given the results of the test, Ameren could potentially conduct routine inspections over a much wider area in a much smaller amount of time—assuming, of course, that they can obtain a permanent FAA waiver for the areas where they plan to conduct these operations.

Beyond Visual Line of Sight Drone Flight

The good news for Ameren is that there is already a model in place for the FAA to issue permission for these kinds of inspections.

Last spring power company Xcel Energy received a BVLOS waiver to use drones for power line inspections in and around Denver, Colorado, and they began regular use of that waiver in the fall.

Similar to Ameren, Xcel Energy has expressed an interest in using BVLOS drone flights to inspect all of the power lines and related assets they use in their operations as a utility provider..

How Drones Can Help Make Electricity Safer and Cheaper

As noted above, the primary alternatives to flying a drone BVLOS for power line inspections are to perform the inspections manually or to perform them with a manned helicopter.

But these approaches are costly and also potentially dangerous.

Flying a helicopter close enough to an asset like a power line to inspect it has the inherent risk of hitting the object, and sending a person up on a ladder to perform a manual inspection also presents its own safety concerns. None of these dangers is present with an unmanned aerial vehicle, because the human factor is removed from the inspection scenario.

BVLOS drones will enable us to continue to deliver safe, reliable and affordable energy to our customers tomorrow and for generations to come.

– James Pierce, Lead for Ameren’s Central Unmanned Aircraft System Department

Safety aside, these other methods take longer than using a drone and can be less accurate. New drone-enabled software created to process the treasure trove of data collected via drone allows a UAV to grab a huge amount of raw visual information and then process it later into actionable insights.

In the case of power line inspections, such insights would primarily include possible locations of downed or damaged lines and related trouble—insights gathered in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost as compared to inspections conducted manually or by helicopter.

BVLOS in 2019

2019 is shaping up to be the year of BVLOS.

BVLOS-drone-flights

Image source

In some ways, the groundwork for ushering in regular BVLOS flights was made—or at least signalled—by the release of Precision Hawk’s Pathfinder Report on BVLOS last May at AUVSI’s annual conference.

Since then we’ve seen a handful of significant first-of-their-kind BVLOS waivers issued by the FAA:

  • Earlier this month, State Farm received a permanent, national waiver to fly BVLOS for insurance inspections.
  • In December, Airobotics received a new, unique waiver to fly automated BVLOS missions over people without the use of a Visual Observer.
  • In October, GE’s Avitas Systems received the first ever waiver granted to fly a 55+ pound drone BVLOS.

In addition to the above, many of the UAS IPP pilot programs are currently conducting tests for flying drones BVLOS and over people (among other things). Their findings could help move the needle on the regulatory front for these and other types of flying currently prohibited by the FAA’s Part 107 rules.

Ameren’s successful BVLOS test is one more step forward when it comes to making drones a go-to tool for inspections across various industries. The question these days is not whether UAVs should be the primary tool used for these kinds of inspections, but how long it will take for regulations to catch up, and make it possible to do so.

What do you think—will we see more and more BVLOS waivers granted this year, or do we still have a long way to go before BVLOS becomes a regular part of commercial drone operations? Chime in on this thread in the UAV Coach community forum to share your thoughts and opinions.

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