Utilities and other industries interested in the cost-savings advantages of drones for inspections and other tasks are taking a close look at the FAA’s proposed rules for unmanned aircraft systems.
With safety in mind, the FAA is requiring drone operators to keep their aircraft always within a line-of-sight, and to fly below 500 feet. Also, the agency wants to keep drone flights safely away from airports or other airspaces where the risk of in-flight collision could be catastrophic. The FAA unveiled its proposed rules in February. The next step is public input on the rules, and other administrative hurdles before they are revised or adopted, which could happen by 2017.
The Utility Dive news website reached out to utilities for their take on the FAA’s proposed drone rules. San Diego Gas & Electric is managing the only utility drone program in the U.S., according to Utility Dive. The company received special permission from the FAA to test drones and train flight crews in a remote location in San Diego County.
The drones used by SDG&E are specialized commercial quadcopters, small enough to be carried in an operator’s hand. Their robust construction and on-board camera and sensor systems command a price tag close to $20,000. They are light years in difference from consumer quadcopters–toys really–which can be had for $200 or less.
Still, compared to utility line inspections conducted by helicopter, drones have the potential to save companies thousands and thousands of dollars. SDG&E has to inspect more than 26,000 miles of lines, and “every time we fly (in a helicopter), it’s about $1,200 to fly a mile,” SDG&E drone program manager Jamie Exon told Utility Drive.
SDG&E is seeing positive results with its trial program, and plans to invest in larger drones capable of carrying more equipment, such as high-definition imaging cameras, thermal cameras and systems that can map three-dimensional objects.
Other industries are taking a serious look at the usefulness of drones, and weighing in on the FAA’s proposed regulations. Amazon and Google are experimenting with drones for delivering packages. Google also is conducting another experiment using solar powered drones to bring internet connectivity to remote locations.
CNN and other news organizations are also interested in using drones for news gathering.