Opinion

Aiming High to Strengthen the Grid

 

When it comes to electricity, there is nothing more important than reliability. Customers rely on their appliances to hum to life and their lights to come on whenever they are needed, and the electric power industry works hard to deliver on this promise while always striving for improvement.

This dedication to reliability is why the sector invested $42 billion in the energy grid in 2014 alone. It’s also why the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), which represents America’s investor-owned electric companies, and Sharper Shape — a global leader in asset inspections via drones — recently announced an innovative new partnership at the National Hurricane Conference this March.

So what is the connection between electric energy infrastructure and drones? It all comes down to being proactive about finding innovative ways to deliver more value to the customer. 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.

In this capacity, drone inspections are an exciting new tool that electric companies can use to improve the reliability, resiliency and safety of the energy grid, and ultimately to improve service and add value for customers.

Before this great potential can be realized, however, there are two related policy issues that need to be resolved. First, current regulations only allow for the commercial use of drones with a special waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Second, even with this waiver, operations are usually limited to flights within the line of sight of the operator, significantly constraining the operational range and flexibility of drone systems.

Congress recognizes the inadequacy of current regulations. Both the House and Senate have been working on bills to reauthorize the FAA, and both have included robust policy changes to facilitate broader commercial use of drones. In particular, the Senate adopted an amendment that would allow critical infrastructure industries — including the electric power sector — to apply with the FAA for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone flights.

We formed this partnership to collaborate with our government colleagues on working through these challenges. Ultimately, our goal is to foster the development of a regulatory framework for the safe, regular operation of drones in a BVLOS mode, thereby maximizing the potential of this exciting new technology. We will do this by developing a robust concept of operations for drones in the electric power sector, and applying with the FAA for permission to conduct BVLOS flights that test and validate it.

We are extremely excited to be working together to develop what promises to be a groundbreaking new tool that electric companies can leverage to improve their operations and enhance the value delivered to all U.S. electricity customers. While the electric power industry has long proven its ability to maintain a highly reliable and resilient grid, it is always looking for innovative ways to operate more efficiently. That’s why the EEI-Sharper Shape partnership is such a natural fit.

We believe that the EEI-Sharper Shape partnership will be instrumental in paving the way for the regular and safe operation of drones for the BVLOS inspection of electricity infrastructure, and look forward to an even more reliable, resilient and responsive energy future.

Chris Hickling is Director of Government Affairs at the Edison Electric Institute. Tero Heinonen is Founder and CEO of Sharper Shape. 

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