North Dakota is known for its sparse population, but also for its drones.
A new partnership between Xcel Energy and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allows drones to inspect power lines out of human sight in eight states – Colorado, Michigan, MInnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin.
Xcel’s electric and natural gas infrastructure covers 320,000 miles, serving 155,000 customers. Now, when storms knock the power out, Xcel can send drones to inspect the lines before crews dispatch with an expensive helicopter or bucket truck. This will be the first time the company will use drones within a city.
“Xcel Energy is committed to using drone technology in North Dakota and all the states we serve,” said Chris Clark, president of Xcel Energy-North Dakota, in an August 21 press release. “Drones offer tremendous value to our company and our customers by allowing us to closely inspect our infrastructure to help improve reliability, enhance safety and keep bills low.”
The FAA’s relationship with North Dakota, a state with 760,000 people and ample farmland, allows for looser regulations. In North Dakota, if a drone malfunctions, it’s unlikely it will land in a neighborhood cul de sac or collide with piloted aircraft.
The work that Xcel pursues with drones is part of the North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT) Integration Pilot Program, a program started in May 2018 that could provide a blueprint for other state governments and private sector partners.
“With this Pilot Program, we also will be able to create new avenues to enhance safety on our roadways and help first responders keep our citizens safe during emergencies,” Tom Sorel, the NDDOT director added. “It will allow us to explore new uses for unmanned aircraft, such as monitoring critical infrastructure and working with law enforcement and emergency services to speed up response times during events such as flooding, blizzards and finding missing persons.”
This waiver expansion is a good sign for other sectors. Drones remain a coveted technology in the autonomous last-mile delivery market – a market projected to grow from $12 billion (2019) to $91.5 billion by 2030. Because of the demands of online shopping, companies like Amazon Air, Google, Uber Eats and UPS all want to refine delivery efficiency and have sought approval to fly drones in urban areas at night beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). Permission has not yet been granted. The FAA views drones as they do airplanes, so they are put through the same safety and economic certification procedures.
For now, all interested eyes are fixed on the growing freedom of North Dakota’s drones as they improve Xcel Energy’s ability to power homes and businesses.