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FAC T S H E E T March 2015
Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (Drone) Use
In Public Power Utility Operations
Unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as “drones,” are
aircraft operated with no human pilot aboard. Drones
have the potential to be very useful to public power
utilities in assessing storm damage, surveying distribution and transmission equipment, and supporting construction and repair. Federal Aviation Administration
(FAA) rules have effectively grounded drones except
for entities obtaining special permits and waivers. A
new proposed rule provides some relief, but is crafted
so narrowly as to preclude many of the operations for
which drones would provide the most cost benefit. The
American Public Power Association (APPA) believes the
FAA should take greater steps to facilitate drone use by
governmental jurisdictions, including public power utilities.
Drones are aircraft operated with no human pilot
aboard. These can include autonomous aircraft and
remotely-piloted aircraft. Autonomous drones are not
yet technologically developed enough for safe commercial use, but remotely-piloted drones are more developed, with the FAA estimating that as many as 7,500
small commercial drones will be in use by 2018. Drones
show particularly cost-effective potential for use by electric power utilities. In a series of flight tests, the Electric
Power Research Institute (EPRI) found that drones can
be used effectively to assess storm damage on utility distribution and transmission systems. APPA members are
also investigating the use of drones in routine surveys of
electric power equipment and support of construction
and repair.
However, the FAA and federal aviation rules have
failed to keep pace with this new technology. Except for
a few hundred waivers and exemptions granted to some
commercial operators and governmental jurisdictions,
the FAA has imposed a virtual lockdown on commercial
drone use. In fact, San Diego Gas & Electric is the only
electric power utility in the nation to have received a
waiver from the FAA to test drone use in responding to
emergencies and routine inspection of electric and gas
lines in remote areas.
Generally, rules governing the use of aircraft by
governmental jurisdictions and private (civil) operators
are different. Government-operated (public) aircraft
must comply with federal airspace and air-traffic rules,
but generally are exempt from civil airworthiness and
airman certification requirements. This exemption has
eased the use of traditional aircraft by governmental
entities. However, the exemption for governmental jurisdictions from such requirements is essentially erased
for drone operations because drones cannot, by definition, meet certain airspace rules. For example, a pilot
is required to scan the sky from the cockpit to “see and
avoid” other aircraft. Because the drone cannot meet
the see-and-avoid rule, the FAA has required governmental entities to obtain an FAA-issued Certificate of
Waiver or Authorization (COA) to operate drones. The
process is complicated and unpredictable, with successful applications still resulting in extreme requirements
for the operator. Roughly 400 COAs are currently in
effect—a handful considering there are more than
40,000 cities and counties in the U.S.
Congressional Action
The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012
required the FAA to develop a plan to integrate civil
unmanned aerial vehicles into the national airspace system and simplify the process for state and local governmental entities seeking a COA. The FAA on February
15, 2015, proposed rules providing clear guidelines for
civil operations of drones weighing less than 55 pounds,
operated within eyesight of the operator, operated only
Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (Drone) Use in Public Power Utility Operations
during daylight hours, and flown by “operators” vetted
by the Transportation Security Administration and who
have passed an FAA-approved aeronautical test. These
rules would not change the COA process, but governmental entities could apply to have their operations
regulated by these civil drone rules, rather than operating under a COA. The option to adopt these civil drone
rules would be of little use in many of the operations
where drones would be of most use to public power
utilities, including surveying and assessing equipment
in remote locations and aiding operations which occur
outside daylight hours.
Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) praised the new
rules as a good first step, but said they needed to be
improved. In a February 19, 2015, letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, Senator Schumer said the
line-of-sight rule “could significantly hinder the potential use for (drones) in many commercial usages (including) infrastructure monitoring.” Senator Schumer
also recommended that commercially operated drones
could and should be required to include software and
firmware coupled with global positioning satellite (GPS)
data to enforce maximum flight height requirements
and prevent drones from entering restricted airspaces.
Finally, he also urged that privacy guidelines for drones
should also be included.
APPA Position
APPA believes drones could be beneficial to the operation of public power utilities, including for surveying
electric power equipment, assessing damage, and aiding
in construction and repair. FAA regulations and federal
aviation laws have failed to keep pace with this emerging technology and its use by governmental jurisdictions. FAA regulations and federal aviation laws should
facilitate, not impede, the responsible use of drones by
public power utilities.
APPA Contacts
John Godfrey, Government Relations Director,
202-467-2929 / [email protected]