EEI Takes to the Sky
May 2016

‚ÄčImproved reliability and resiliency of the energy grid is flying high, thanks to electric power companies working with hundreds of leading companies and technology partners to unlock the full potential of the future, drive innovation and change, and empower customers. A recent partnership between EEI and Sharper Shape, a leader in automated Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)-based asset inspection, is a great example of a powerful partnership founded on the principles of innovation.

Not long ago drones were considered toys for a handful of enthusiastic hobbyists. However, rapid advances in controls, batteries, and other systems have quickly expanded the use of the unmanned aircraft. Hobbyists still represent the majority of drone operators in the United States, but that is changing as new and exciting uses for the craft emerge.

EEI member companies have been experimenting with drones for asset inspection and other uses for some time. The EEI and Sharper Shape partnership was formed to demonstrate and develop commercial UAS beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights for electric power companies. The hope is to foster the development of safe and regular drone operation rules for the inspection of electric company assets. Key applications for UAS include:

  • Transmission and distribution inspections
  • Environmental assessment
  • Generation facilities inspection
  • Emergency response / disaster recovery
  • Physical security

"Drones have immense potential to improve reliability and efficiency by streamlining the inspection of large assets like transmission and distribution lines, as well as generation assets such as conventional power plants, and renewables like wind and solar," wrote EEI's Chris Hickling and Sharper Shape's Tero Heinonen in a recent joint-opinion article describing the goals of the technology partnership.

Currently, regulations only allow for the commercial use of drones with a special waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and even with this waiver, operations are limited to flights during the daytime and within the line of sight of the operator, significantly constraining the operational range and flexibility of the system. 

Drone inspections are an exciting new tool that electric power companies can use to improve the reliability and resiliency of the energy grid and to integrate new innovations and technologies for our customers.