CHASKA, Minn. -- Xcel Energy is using drones to inspect transmission lines in Minnesota, part of a larger effort with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The first-of-its-kind partnership was announced earlier this year. Xcel Energy is using drones to inspect more than 20,000 miles of transmission lines in 10 states. The Minneapolis-based company plans on inspecting approximately 670 miles of transmission lines in Minnesota with drones this year.
This research will help FAA when shaping future policies for safe and routine beyond visual-line-of-sight operations to inspect the electrical grid.
"We need to have systems that can collect a large amount of data and cover a large territory. So we're seeing the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) as a step forward for us to be able to collect that imagery and get better information on our systems," said Brian Long, director of system sustainability and the transmission group for Xcel Energy.
Thursday morning, crews were going to inspect a 46-mile stretch of transmission line in Chaska. However, it was too windy for a full inspection so they demonstrated the UAS.
"Basically, it allows us to find parts or pieces that are wearing out and then we can proactively replace before we have a problem with them. It ensures our electric reliability," Long said.
Xcel Energy started using drone technology in 2013 inside of boilers at various power plants. However, the company is now fully incorporating unmanned UAS in its operations.
"I see this as a big part of the future because it allows us to get digital information about our systems," Long said.
Xcel Energy also inspects transmission lines from the ground, as well as helicopter. The drone they demonstrated Thursday can cover about 50 miles a day--similar to a helicopter. However, drones can inspect hard to reach sites. They're able to gather high resolution photos, up close. Long said these drones allow for safer inspections while also minimizing the environmental impact.
Since 2016, Xcel Energy has also been working on a research project with the state of North Dakota and the University of North Dakota to use drones to assess storm damage after severe weather events.