Today, the global leader in drone-based asset inspections, Sharper Shape, submitted a waiver application to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), requesting approval to perform beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) flights. In coordination with the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) and SkySkopes, the leading drone service provider in North Dakota, this waiver would allow members of the EEI-Sharper Shape partnership to demonstrate and develop commercial long-distance flights for electric company asset inspections.
In addition to submitting one of the first waiver requests, Sharper Shape and SkySkopes are working with Xcel Energy, Montana-Dakota Utilities Co., Minnkota Power Cooperative, Houston Engineering, Northern Plains Railroad, University of North Dakota and the Edison Electric Institute to conduct test flights.
Today marks the first day that companies can submit waiver applications to the FAA, whose Part 107 drone regulations set clear rules for line-of-sight operations and include a new waiver policy to enable qualified applicants for more advanced drone use cases, like BVLOS.
BVLOS flights are able to travel 10-20 miles, compared to roughly 1,500 feet (one-third of a mile) under visual-line-of-sight regulations. "Inspections via long-distance drones will help us improve the reliability, resiliency and security of the power grid, which ultimately benefits our customers," said Michael Lamb, vice president, Xcel Energy operating services and enterprise transformation office. "This waiver is a major step toward industry-wide BVLOS asset inspections."
"Beyond-visual-line-of-sight flights will provide electric companies with a new tool to more quickly and efficiently inspect critical assets during routine maintenance and following a storm or natural disaster," said EEI Director of Government Relations Chris Hickling. "EEI thanks the FAA for its work in developing new rules and taking steps toward allowing businesses to better utilize unmanned aerial systems. We're excited to pursue demonstration flights through our partnership with Sharper Shape and SkySkopes."
The test flights will leverage Sharper Shape's new Sharper A6 drone and Sharperscope 5.0 payload, which were also announced today. The Sharper A6 drone is the world's first drone optimized for BVLOS asset inspections. Notably, the Sharper A6 uses four redundant cellular networks to make it virtually impossible for the drone to lose communication with ground control operators. Sharper Shape leverages the LTE commercial multi-billion-dollar networks, while other vendors use point-to-point (P2P), which cannot communicate beyond line of sight, or satellite connection, which suffers from high costs and invariable latency which increases the response time and impedes a pilot's ability to make quick adjustments during the flight.
The A6 drone can collect a comprehensive variety of useful data (including information from its HD cameras, infrared sensors, corona detector, LiDAR sensor, etc.), and is to this day the only platform capable of doing so in a single flight. The sensors have been carefully selected and integrated into the Sharperscope 5.0, a system that Sharper Shape has engineered specifically for electric company BVLOS inspections and which syncs directly to the Sharper Shape cloud.
"With Sharper Shape's A6 drone, operators can conduct long-distance flights with peace of mind that inspections will be safe, secure and accurate," said Sharper Shape CEO Tero Heinonen. "We're excited to team up with SkySkopes to fulfill the mission of the EEI-Sharper Shape partnership: make BVLOS flights a reality for U.S. electric companies in the very near future."
In conjunction with submitting the waiver application, SkySkopes and Sharper Shape kicked off a string of test flights including:
- The first flight using the new Sharper A6 drone via a line-of-sight demonstration to inspect the Xcel Energy Bison Substation
- A final flight with a fleet of drones to celebrate the day's events
"These test flights have contributed to a monumental day for the U.S. drone industry," said SkySkopes President and CEO Matt Dunlevy. "We look forward to continuing to pioneer new developments for drone flights in the U.S. alongside Sharper Shape."
Sharper Shape, EEI and SkySkopes are optimistic to test BVLOS flights in the U.S. by the end of the year.