Utility successfully conducts 60-mile BVLOS inspection flight

By Patrick C. Miller | December 14, 2018

Last month in Illinois, a drone flew a 60-mile, nonstop beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) mission to inspect the transmission lines of Ameren Corp., an energy company with more than 3 million customers across a 64,000-square-mile area of Missouri and Illinois.

Headquartered in St. Louis, Ameren is exploring safer ways to monitor its assets spread over rural territories without using helicopters or manual inspections. The company teamed with global engineering and construction firm Black & Veatch and Collins Aerospace, the aerospace technology branch of United Technologies Corp. Other participants in the project included North Dakota’s Northern Plains UAS Test Site, the University of Iowa’s Operator Performance Laboratory, Near Earth Autonomy, Latitude Engineering and pdvWireless.

"We are pleased with the outcome of this 60-mile flight, which demonstrates our commitment to identifying advancements in drone technology to increase reliability and customer satisfaction,” said James Pierce, BVLOS program manager and lead of Ameren’s Central UAS Department. “Ultimately, the successful deployment of BVLOS drones could revolutionize how Ameren assesses and evaluates the condition of our systems.”

On Nov. 8, the team used a Pulse Vapor 55 drone to inspect transmission lines in southern Illinois. Last year, another BVLOS drone was used to inspect nearly 10 miles of Ameren’s power lines near Newton, Illinois. The 2018 flight featured a special use vertical-take-off-and-landing drone. This more recent test flight highlighted the potential of using an eye-in-the-sky and imaging data captured by laser-based profiling—light detection and ranging (LiDAR).

“This year, we repeated that 10-mile flight, but we also captured LiDAR data,” said Jamare Bates, an FAA-certified remote unmanned aircraft systems pilot who heads UAS operations for Black & Veatch. “That might sound simple, but now you’ve got another piece of equipment on the aircraft that you have to manage while flying and capturing data.

“We’re upped the complexity and we flew a longer distance,” he said. “You continue to push the bar. Every time we push the bar and we get approval from the FAA, the FAA is validating that they believe we’re operating safely.”

In addition to safety, the advantages provided by UAS are: increased frequency of inspections with improved vantage points; the ability to collect greater levels of data analyzed to assess transmission assets; improved system reliability and resiliency; reduced asset management costs; and lower impacts on landowners. Black & Veatch and Collins Aerospace obtained a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) waiver for the test

“What we’re trying to prove to the FAA is that you can do these long-distance flights—specifically in rural areas—where you can inspect assets such as infrastructure,” Bates explained. “You can do that very safely from an automated command center without putting airspace in jeopardy.”

Bates said the project confirmed that UAS can move utilities beyond reactive maintenance by quickly and safely acquiring condition and performance data about their assets, leading to improved operations and longer asset life. “We can speed inspection time, reduce inspection costs and accelerate the integration of analyzed data into a client’s enterprise asset management system for improved decision making,” he concluded.