ENERGY SECURITYDrones Approved for Aerial Inspections of Power Facilities

Published 4 August 2022

Drones have allowed companies new ways to stretch the boundaries of current regulations. One of the latest wins for drone technology is a waiver from the FAA that gives Dominion Energy, one of the U.S. largest energy companies, permission to use drones to inspect power-generation facilities in seven states.

Since the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership was designated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as an official drone test site in 2013, its research has helped shape drone integration in the U.S.

In the process, it has carved out new opportunities for companies that see new ways to use the technology that stretch the boundaries of current regulations. One of the latest wins is a waiver from the FAA that gives Dominion Energy, one of the region’s largest energy companies, permission to use drones to inspect power-generation facilities in seven states. 

Drones have become a popular tool for inspections of bridges, buildings, and other structures because high-resolution aerial imagery is a convenient alternative to an assessment that could be time-consuming or dangerous to do in person. What makes this particular waiver so valuable for Dominion is a feature that’s widely coveted but still relatively rare: It doesn’t require the operator to be able to see the aircraft the whole time it’s being flown. 

Keeping the drone within “visual line of sight” is a standard requirement written into drone regulations to reduce the risk of collision with low-flying crewed aircraft such as helicopters and small planes. Breaking this barrier and flying beyond visual line of sight has become a central priority in the drone industry because of the efficiencies that accrue when an operator has the flexibility to cover longer distances or — more relevantly for this type of work — maneuver around corners or behind obstacles. 

Dominion will conduct its inspections with an aircraft from U.S. drone manufacturer Skydio with sophisticated, autonomous obstacle avoidance capabilities. That feature allows the drone to be safely flown in close proximity to structures. Virginia Tech helped Skydio and Dominion make the case to the FAA that flying close to structures on the facility kept the drone out of the way of other potential air traffic, making the risk of collision so low that the FAA could safely waive the requirement for the pilot to see the drone or for an additional crew member to constantly scan the airspace.  

“Two major goals of our research are helping firms like Dominion develop safe, practical ways to use drones to enhance their operations and helping drone companies like Skydio find opportunities to leverage the power of their technology to enable new kinds of operations,” said Tombo Jones, the test site’s director. “This waiver achieves both of those things.”

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