UAV Inspections Beyond Visual Line of Sight Require Future Integration Into National Airspace
By Jamare Bates, Black & Veatch
With Amazon and others announcing plans to use drones to deliver consumer goods right to customers’ doorsteps, interest in this technology has reached new heights. In the commercial space, many industries are excited about how operations can be supported with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
The military, commercial enterprises, public safety agencies and media companies understand the incredible potential of UAV technology. Utilities, insurance companies and construction firms also can benefit from using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). There are many applications that are suited for UAS and as technology and regulations continue to evolve, more capabilities will be realized. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations currently allow only visual line of sight (VLOS) flights, but many groups are exploring beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) applications for future implementation.
BVLOS UAV Applications
Imagine being able to set a preprogrammed flight plan and send a camera-equipped UAV to inspect bridges, dams, telecommunications towers or electric transmission lines in remote areas. The benefits include:
“- Detailed asset data capture. UAVs can capture high-definition images that can detect rust on a single bolt, a hairline crack in a dam, or wear and tear on transformers or transmission lines. This allows for preventive utility maintenance that could avert a service outage, improve the performance of the electricity grid or a telecommunications network, and ultimately save money for the utility and its customers.
“- Improved technician safety. Moving technicians away from manned aircraft operations reduces the risk of injury.
“- Increased frequency of inspections. A typical utility might conduct two inspections per year of rural transmissions lines. UAV-based inspections will be less expensive and easier to conduct, so companies could schedule more frequent inspections.
“- Increased data quality. As sensor technologies improve, UAVs can be used to collect all kinds of data, including thermal imaging, hyperspectral imagery, high-definition photos, 4K-resolution video and light detection and ranging (LiDAR) point clouds.
“- Data analysis. With more data available, analysis can provide valuable insight to inform intelligent business decisions. The long-term result is better asset risk management, enhanced ability to invest in capital improvements and efficient use of operations and maintenance budgets.
Several obstacles, both regulatory and technical, must be overcome before the full benefits of BVLOS UAV technology can be realized.
Evolving FAA Regulations
On the regulatory side, the National Airspace System (NAS) is the purview of the FAA, which is trying to strike a balance between public safety and pressure from industry to integrate the commercial use of UAVs, because no one wants a stray drone getting into the path of a commercial airliner or crashing into a pedestrian. At the same time, the benefits are so clear that the FAA, working with NAS, is moving as quickly as it can to enable UAS traffic management. The agency has set 2020 as a target date for allowing companies to deploy BVLOS UAV flights for specific use cases.
UAS regulations have come a long way from when use of commercial UAVs was not allowed at all. In 2015, the FAA began allowing commercial flights but required any commercial operator to be a manned aircraft pilot.
In 2016, under intense pressure, the FAA relaxed those rules to allow people to pass a written test to become certified to fly a UAV. Today more than 75,000 people have obtained Remote Pilot Certification from the FAA.
FAA rules remain strict, however. Aircraft must weigh less than 55 pounds, remain below 400 feet, fly during daylight hours and cannot fly over people.
Currently, companies can use UAVs as long as the certified pilot on the ground can see the aircraft within his visual line of sight, which limits deployments to around three-quarters of a mile. Regulations allow UAV pilots to wear glasses or contact lenses, but the use of binoculars for tracking line of sight aircraft is not permitted.
Part 107 Waivers
Entities that want to perform BVLOS flights must apply for a Part 107 waiver, and those that receive a waiver must operate under specific guidelines. One such waiver was recently granted for a demonstration project in which Rockwell Collins, working closely with Black & Veatch; successfully demonstrated a BVLOS UAV flight along almost 10 miles of power line infrastructure owned by Ameren Corp., located near Newton, Illinois.
Rockwell Collins is a global aviation company with expertise in flight deck avionics, cabin electronics, cabin interiors, information management, mission communications and simulation and training for commercial and military customers. It provided the command and control data link and operations management technology, while Black & Veatch managed engineering, design and procurement of the temporary radio network. Because BVLOS flights can be executed much further away from a UAV pilot, to ensure constant command and control, a dedicated network might need to be developed to ensure seamless communication between the aircraft and the remote pilot in command on the ground.
The demonstration proved that the technology can yield the benefits of VLOS inspections at a larger scale, but BVLOS won’t reach its potential until the FAA resolves the regulatory and air traffic control system issues.
The regulatory landscape is clearly evolving. In March, the FAA announced it will expand tests of its drone airspace authorization program. The automated system will provide faster processing of airspace authorization requests for UAS operators and enable multiple BVLOS operations at low altitudes.
The FAA deployed the prototype of its fully automated low-altitude authorization and notification system at several air traffic facilities last November. Based on that early success, the agency began a nationwide beta test on April 30 that deploys the system at nearly 300 air traffic facilities covering approximately 500 airports. The final deployment will begin in September.
UAV operators can receive near real-time airspace authorizations, which allow operators to quickly plan their flights. Air traffic controllers also can see where planned UAV operations will take place.
Solving Technical Issues with Advanced Data Collection and Analysis
Today, when conducting asset inspections in a manned aircraft, the technician typically makes visual observations and manually logs and records the asset conditions. In an integrated UAV inspection solution, data can not only be collected electronically, but also can use a back-end system for downloading, accessing and analyzing information. As UAVs can collect massive amounts of images, videos or sensor readings, this data analysis can truly provide value for operations and maintenance programs.
Black & Veatch has performed multiple successful VLOS flights over dams, transmission lines, solar fields and streams, as part of a stream restoration project. Successful Black & Veatch UAV applications include:
“- Wakarusa Wastewater Treatment Plant (Lawrence, Kansas). UAVs performed construction progress monitoring, including 3-D modeling, photos and video.
“- Tenaska Westmoreland (Smithton, Pennsylvania). A UAV monitored transmission lines as they were being built to track progress. Flights around the powerblock and laydown yards also helped track where construction materials were located, as well as provide an overall rough inventory. Some 3-D photogrammetry was also conducted. The multiple pictures of equipment on site from all angles helped create a colored 3-D mesh/model at scale.
A full ecosystem for UAV-based information collection would include gathering imagery and analysis for asset management, system monitoring, and risk analysis and capital investment prioritization.
Implementing a UAV Inspection Program
There are many moving parts when it comes to developing and implementing a UAV program. Key considerations include: regulatory, legal, insurance and technology systems integration; new business process development and implementation; and, post-flight data processing, analytics and remediation.
In addition, utilities must think about developing new risk and other analytical algorithms to exploit new data, deploying new and upgraded platforms to scale, and implementing automation and navigational techniques both from structure to structure and around individual structures.
Over time, new algorithms will allow operations and maintenance systems to learn which data points to look for to identify defects and make recommendations to remediate defects.
The UAV Future
Based on evolving FAA regulations and flight applications, UAVs will continue to become more mainstream. Construction sites will more commonly be monitored by UAVs. Drones could be buzzing around your neighborhood, delivering groceries and packages. In addition, BVLOS fixed-wing aircraft could be flying preplanned routes to access remote transmission lines, telecommunications towers, dams, bridges and other structures soon.
The expected proliferation of UAVs could impact data networks as well, as data requirements should drive the establishment of new, high-bandwidth networks that can transfer inspection data or potential changes to design strategies for future infrastructure in real-time, making UAV inspections even more valuable.
Jamare Bates is the director of unmanned aircraft systems operations at Black & Veatch and has helped develop the company’s UAV-based infrastructure inspection capabilities. He is a FAA-certified remote UAV pilot and a licensed Professional Engineer in Virginia. Bates has more than 15 years of civil engineering experience including project management, maintenance contractor management, as well as design of storm, sanitary sewer, water and site design; plus, structural design of bridge decks, piers, abutments, retaining walls and stormwater control structures.
Xcel Energy Gains FAA Approval to fly UAV Beyond Line of Sight
Xcel Energy announced that it will be the first utility in the nation to routinely fly unmanned aircraft beyond the operator’s visual line of sight (BVLOS) when it begins surveying transmission lines near Denver, Colorado.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced in mid-April that it authorized the flights.
“Xcel Energy is honored to be the first utility to conduct flights that will enhance grid reliability and safety for our employees and the public,” said Ben Fowke, Xcel Energy’s chairman, president and CEO, in a press release. “With this groundbreaking decision, we are advancing the use of technology that improves our efficiency and provides cost savings for our customers.”
Starting this summer, the company will routinely operate drones BVLOS within a designated area approximately 20 miles north of Denver International Airport. Licensed pilots will remotely operate a small, unmanned helicopter weighing less than 55 pounds. Xcel Energy will use advanced command-and-control technology to ensure safe operations while it inspects transmission lines, according to the press release.
To conduct the flights, the company is currently working with several industry leaders including Harris Corp., Northern Plains UAS Test Site, Phoenix Air UNMANNED, LLC and Altus Intelligence. When the transmission inspections are completed in the Denver area, Xcel Energy will work with the FAA to extend its BVLOS operations in other states where the company provides electric service.
For several years, Xcel Energy has been collaborating with the FAA to develop operational and safety requirements for unmanned aircraft operations in the utility industry. Most recently, in January 2017, Xcel Energy entered into a Partnership for Safety Program (PSP) with the FAA to operate drones for power line inspections within visual sight of operators. The work demonstrated how unmanned aircraft improve productivity and safety as the technology allows for inspections to be completed without the use of trucks, helicopters or other utility equipment. Xcel Energy inspects more than 320,000 miles of electricity and natural gas infrastructure to ensure the safety and reliability of its energy system.