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Xcel, FAA research using drones to inspect electric lines

An airplane flies over a drone during the Polar Bear Plunge on Coney Island in the Brooklyn borough of New York January 1, 2015. REUTERS file photo

GRAND FORKS — A regional electricity provider will work with the Federal Aviation Administration to help form policies for inspecting electrical infrastructure using unmanned aircraft systems.

Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy will partner with the federal agency to research inspecting electric grids using unmanned aircraft, also known as drones, beyond the line of sight. The electrical company that provides power for eight states in the Midwest will use drones to inspect more than 20,000 miles of Xcel transmission lines in 10 states, including North Dakota and Minnesota.

"We're proud to partner with the FAA to explore ways unmanned aircraft systems can enhance public safety while protecting the national grid and gas pipelines," Kent Larson, executive vice president and group president of operations for Xcel, said in a statement. "Drone technology is already giving us better inspection data to efficiently and effectively monitor our systems, ensuring employee safety and improving reliability to better serve customers."

Companies need a certificate of authorization so they can fly drones out of sight for commercial uses, though gaining one requires specialized approval from the FAA. In December, the Northern Plains UAS Test Site at Grand Sky technology park became the first to receive the certificate in order to conduct beyond-sight operations. Researchers now can use drones to conduct out-of-sight missions at the park, which is on Grand Forks Air Force Base land.

Business use

The first-of-its-kind research Xcel is conducting with the FAA will determine if using drones to inspect lines beyond the sight of pilots is effective. The project could result in guidelines and safety measures for other companies who want to fly drones for business purposes.

It's not the first time Xcel Energy has been involved in drone work. Last year, UND's Center for Innovation received nearly $500,000 to conduct a feasibility study for using drones to assess electrical infrastructure after natural disasters. The university partnered with Xcel and Elbit Systems, an aircraft manufacturing company, on the project.

Xcel also conducted an out-of-sight flight in 2016.

UAS technology development and operations in North Dakota were part of the reason Xcel was chosen to work with the FAA to establish national guidelines, Xcel spokesman Matt Lindstrom said.

Work on the research project will start in the spring with drones inspecting lines in Texas. Inspections will continue in the fall in Minnesota, Lindstrom said. Flights for grids in other states have not been scheduled.

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven said in a statement the research could bring forth opportunities for multiple industries and applications, including energy, agriculture and border security.

"Xcel Energy's partnership with the FAA is a great example of the economic opportunities created by the UAS test sites," Hoeven said.

Lindstrom said there will be no additional costs to customers because of the study since inspecting lines is already part of the Xcel budget.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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