Harris Partners with Xcel Energy to Enable Unprecedented Drone Inspections
Xcel Energy is a leading U.S. utility that powers millions of homes and businesses across eight western and midwestern states. To provide reliable and efficient electric service to its customers, Xcel Energy operates a sophisticated and far-reaching power grid that requires regular monitoring and maintenance.
Traditionally, transmission line inspections are conducted by linemen who scale towers to examine equipment. This can be extremely dangerous and, in certain remote areas, nearly impossible. The primary alternative, helicopter-based inspection, typically costs about $600 for each mile of aerial inspection and can be equally as dangerous.
With thousands of miles of transmission lines to maintain, Xcel Energy was determined to find a safer, more cost-efficient way to monitor its infrastructure. The Minneapolis-based utility company worked with Harris to identify a solution: beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone flights.
Moving Above and Beyond Traditional Inspection Methods
Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), i.e. drones, flying BVLOS offer a promising alternative for utility infrastructure inspections. Because UAS are remotely operated, utility personnel do not have to navigate hazardous terrain or climb dangerous heights. Inspection costs are lowered by eliminating the need for helicopters and multiple vehicles on the ground. UAS also carry high-resolution sensors that yield real-time, in-depth inspection data to support timely decision making.
Implementing UAS inspections does present an operational challenge: BVLOS flights require a complex waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Obtaining this waiver is extremely difficult – less than one percent of applicants have met the safety requirements necessary for approval. However, with Harris' team leading FAA engagement and waiver preparation, Xcel Energy became the first utility in the U.S. to receive permission from the FAA to conduct BVLOS flights for regular transmission line inspection without visual observers or a chase aircraft.
The groundbreaking partnership between the FAA and Xcel Energy revolutionizes how utilities monitor infrastructure and paves the way for broader adoption of BVLOS operations across other industries.
"Using drones beyond the visual line of sight is a major advancement for Xcel Energy,” said David Eves, executive vice president and group president-utilities, Xcel Energy. “This innovative technology is revolutionizing our work by improving the safety, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of maintaining and protecting the grid for our company and our customers.”
Harris’ decades-long partnership with the FAA and RangeVueTM surveillance system, which provides the real-time tracking of aircraft necessary to meet the FAA’s rigorous safety requirements, were key to obtaining the waiver. The efforts of Xcel Energy’s additional partners, including the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, Phoenix Air UNMANNED LLC, Pulse Aerospace, Capital Sciences and JHW Unmanned, all led by the Harris team, were also crucial.
Currently, Xcel Energy and Harris are working with the FAA to expand the utility’s BVLOS operations across several states and up to 2,500 miles – an unprecedented deployment scale for UAS technology.
Xcel Energy’s long-term vision for UAS is equally ambitious. The company plans to investigate how UAS can be deployed to improve safety and cost-efficiency across its other businesses, including natural gas pipelines, solar power generation and power distribution. As the lead UAS technology partner to Xcel Energy, Harris remains committed to enabling routine BVLOS operations that save time, money and, most importantly, lives.