Imagine a drone flight at an electric cooperative in the not-too-distant future.

No longer limited to staying within the line of sight of its on-the-ground operator, it travels much, much farther down the lines, using an array of visual, thermal and LIDAR sensors to accomplish miles of inspection in a single flight.

Flying higher than today’s drones, an optical sensor in its nose scans the sky for dangers, busily feeding data to an onboard artificial-intelligence-powered computer, which is linked to the flight computer. Sensing a private plane in its airspace, the drone automatically executes an avoidance maneuver, dropping rapidly in altitude and banking to avoid any chance of collision.

Miles away, at a control station, the co-op’s drone pilot sees the maneuver and has the ability to take control if necessary. But knowing the drone was designed to adjust its flight path more quickly than its human counterpart, he decides to allow the unmanned vehicle to fly itself to safety.

Danger averted, the drone resumes its mission down 50 miles of line or more, saving the cooperative untold man-hours of inspection by ground or helicopter.

“You’ll get a massive improvement,” NRECA’s Stan McHann says. “The return on investment is huge.”

This future is already here for a small number of electric utilities that have received Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) waivers allowing beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) flights. But it’s coming for many more as the FAA moves toward issuing regulations that could make BVLOS typical operations for those who meet the requirements.

An FAA advisory committee published recommendations in April establishing a roadmap to meet that goal, which could arrive as soon as a couple years from now. The proposed changes also would give expanded right-of-way access and airspace rights to BVLOS drones that meet standards for avoidance and control capabilities.

“This is a huge deal,” says McHann, NRECA senior research engineer and chief drone pilot. “You’re going to see a massive improvement in what you can get done in a day.”

'A trainload of data'

BVLOS is a key part of an evolution in drone capabilities that could transform inspection and maintenance for electric utilities in the coming years. McHann also foresees smaller drones strategically placed throughout a distribution system, able to respond to a SCADA event by taking to the air and quickly checking a trouble spot, sending images and other data back to operations and giving the co-op a clearer idea of what is going on and what response is needed before sending a crew.

As drones become commonplace in co-op fleets, other innovative uses are likely to surface. Even with today’s limitations on flight range, drones are being used by co-ops for regular inspections, vegetation management, placing bird diverters on lines and pulling lead lines across rugged terrain to run new transmission lines.

Increasing automation is expected to play a large role, McHann says, as drones become smarter and more capable.

“Some of our co-ops have 15,000, 20,000 miles of line to cover. When you can get an uncrewed aircraft doing that for you, looking at things on a schedule and reliable enough where you don’t need to have an operator actively supervising it all the time, that’s got real potential,” he says. “And it’s coming.”

Advanced sensors will provide a new level of granular detail on the condition of system hardware. Infrared sensors, for example, can look for hot or arcing connections, transformers and other components, spotting current or future problems hidden from the human eye.

Taking full advantage of these capabilities will require the ability to effectively manage the data they can provide.

“Software is key here,” McHann notes. “One flight will be bringing a trainload of data, and it’s essential that you be able process it and see that it’s integrated into your system in ways that get the information where you need it.”

NRECA is already working with co-ops on flight management and data analysis software integration.

Training and certification

BVLOS will require a new level of training and certification for drone operators. Today, a level 107 certification from the FAA, which entails passing a written test, is all that is necessary for basic, within-visual-line-of-sight drone operations at a co-op or other electric utility. Although NRECA and other organizations offer programs to provide more extensive, hands-on training for drone operators, regulatory requirements are minimal.

The FAA advisory committee’s recommendations include a new pilot certification for BVLOS flight, and experts in the field say it will change how drone operation is approached. “It’s absolutely going to mean an increased level of training,” says Joshua Olds, president and CEO of the Unmanned Safety Institute, which provides training programs and professional certifications for drone operators.

The new BVLOS rules may be a couple years away or more, but Olds says it’s a mistake to wait until then to prepare.

“To take advantage of this big of a step, you really need to start planning to get this into your inspection program now,” he says. “Because when the rules come out, you’re not just going to be able to turn it on immediately. You could be several months getting training and getting your equipment and software sorted out.”

While physical piloting skills combined with aviation safety best practices will remain important, Olds sees a larger skillset that includes knowing how to manage automated drone systems and more sophisticated communications hardware and software. Operators will be continually upgrading and refreshing their abilities as the technology advances.

“You’re going to have to start looking at it as an evolving skillset,” he says.

The human factor

But despite increased automation and intelligent drone systems, “we feel a human is going to be in the loop for a very long time,” Olds adds.

NRECA is upping and expanding its training program to meet the challenge.

“We’re raising the bar and have changed the uncrewed aircraft standards that we teach to be the same as crewed aircraft standards. We don’t want people just buying a drone and taking a 107 exam and going and flying them.,” McHann says. “We want to get them in simulators, we want to get them logging their time, staying current, staying up to date on the regulations.”

The goal is to make sure that drone operators can operate as safely and efficiently as possible. The cost of more extensive training will be more than covered by the return on investment, McHann adds, citing the difference between visual-line-of-site and BVLOS inspections.

Operating today with a drone and operator out in the field, McHann says, a co-op can cover to 80 to 120 assets a day, maybe only 70 to 80 in rougher terrain. Taking advantage of the longer range, flying time and speed at which BVLOS drones can operate, a greater than tenfold increase becomes possible, with a drone able to cover nearly 1,400 assets in a day.

“Your SAIDI-CAIDI numbers are going to come down. That’s real money,” McHann notes.

Drone manufacturers are already offering drones with the BVLOS capabilities that the FAA is expected to require when rules are standardized. For example, the Sentaero BVLOS, a fixed-wing drone offered by Censys Technologies, has 67 miles of range, can stay in the air up to an hour and a half, and has advanced communications and artificial-intelligence avoidance capabilities.

Kyle Miller, Censys Technologies director of business development, says the FAA is taking “a crawl, walk, run” approach to expanding drone flights. The crawl is keeping drones within visual sight, which he says limits their range to about a mile in any direction.

“In today’s regulatory environment [with waivers], the walk is tripling or quadrupling that radius to three to four miles,” he says. “Run will be when the only limitation is the range of the drone.”

While the newest hardware often gets the most attention, Miller notes that “the unmanned vehicle technology is just a piece of the program. The parts that really tie everything together will be the training and regulatory requirements to fly the drone.”

Meeting those standards to take full advantage of BVLOS and other advancements down the road, Miller says, will be essential to economically meeting the demands of maintaining the grid.

“It’s the only way to continue to keep the grid resilient against both weather and aging infrastructure,” he says.

Olds believes the rewards in increased efficiency, system reliability and personnel safety through reducing hazardous tasks like pole climbing far outweigh the costs.

“BVLOS becomes a no-brainer once you start using the technology and the data,” he says. “It is a force multiplier to all the proven benefits of UAS operations.”