Monday marked a landmark day in the use of drones for commercial air transport. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officially relaxed rules that are expected to dramatically open up drone use by commercial enterprises. The Los Angeles Daily News reports that an estimated 600,000 drones are expected to be sold during the last four months of 2016.
“We expect to see real estate people, the film industry, agriculture, roof inspectors and others using drones…It’s going to be a really big market,” Jonas Heggdal, manager of Drones Plus in Studio City, said. Among those expected to take advantage of the new FAA rules are electric utilities, which are often exploring safer and more affordable ways to inspect transmission lines and engage in other high-risk surveillance activities.
During a recent interview, Chris Hickling, Director of Government Relations for the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), a trade association for American investor-owned utilities said they’ve “certainly heard from [their] members that they’re excited about this technology…They see it as part of building a smarter infrastructure.”
According to USA Today, “more than 20 utilities have already tested unmanned aerial vehicles for inspecting transmission and distribution lines for damage from storm and normal wear and tear, using temporary rules from the Federal Aviation Administration, and are now ready to demonstrate them even more.” So far, Duke Energy, Exelon, National Grid, Southern Company, Pacific Gas & Electric and Xcel Energy, are among the top utilities experimenting with drone use.
As long as drones are flown within the line of site of the pilot, below 400 feet, and weigh no more than 55 pounds, commercial entities do not have to apply for special permission from the FAA to use them. Certification protocols have been relaxed as well. Although operators don’t have to prove any special competence in actual flight, they do have to pass a rigorous 60-question test.
Expectations are high for the future of drone use by electric utilities. “It will open up innovation in ways we can’t even imagine,” said Vincent Nestler, a professor of Information and Decision Sciences at Cal State San Bernardino, of the new rules. Dave Guerrero, Principal Manager of Aircraft Operations for Southern California Edison echoed the sentiment, “‘(Drones) can still help us out’ by being the eyes, for example, in environmental assessments or geographically specific assessments of transmission lines.”