As drones continue to boost efficiency and safety in electric utility operations, rules to allow them to fly over people in certain circumstances and at night should be put in place as soon as possible, NRECA and its industry peers told federal regulators.

NRECA joined the American Public Power Association and the Edison Electric Institute in filing comments to the Federal Aviation Administration in support of an agency proposal to permit incidental flights by small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) over people and to lift their ban on night flights.

“The electric industry’s use of small UAS continues to grow and, under the right regulatory environment, has the potential to increase the reliability and security of the national grid while reducing the risk to the men and women who work diligently to keep the lights on,” the utility groups said.

The FAA proposes to allow drones to fly at night under two conditions: Pilots are fully trained and tested in night operations, and the UAS have anti-collision lights on and visible for at least 3 miles.

Routine operations over people would be allowed without a waiver or exemption under the proposed rule provided certain conditions are met. The FAA lists three categories for these flights, involving the weight of the drone, its design and the potential for it to harm people below.

“The applicable conditions vary depending on the level of risk the small UAS operations present to people on the ground,” FAA said.

The trade associations underscored how drones can make routine equipment inspections safer, less time-consuming and less expensive. Camera-enhanced drones can inspect power equipment within hours rather than days and without putting utility personnel in danger.

The utility groups said current FAA rules often ground drones when their use is most critical: before and after extreme weather, when crews are working to harden systems or assess damage.

“As our nation faces increasingly volatile weather, UAS technology enables utilities to prepare better prior to a storm and respond more efficiently to an outage,” they told the FAA. “As a result, electric industry UAS operations are likely to occur in proximity to people, roadways, and buildings, and they may occur at night.”

NRECA, APPA and EEI offered modifications to the proposed rule and urged the agency to act quickly. On its current path, the FAA would likely finalize the rule sometime in 2020.