Groups Want Federal Aviation Administration To Provide Guidance On Drone Use

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, should provide guidance to the electric utility sector tied to the use of drones, the American Public Power Association (APPA), Edison Electric Institute (EEI) and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) said in a recent letter to Secretary of Transportation Peter Buttigieg.

“As the owners and operators of critical infrastructure, electric utilities operate and maintain the electric grid and are working to build out the additional infrastructure needed to meet our collective clean energy goals,” the groups said in their March 17 letter to Buttigieg.

“Both manned and unmanned aircraft systems (drones) play a critical role in these efforts, helping electric companies to inspect transmission infrastructure safely and efficiently. In addition, drones play a growing role in our efforts to reduce wildfire risks and can help electric utilities restore power as safely and as quickly as possible following major storms and hurricanes,” the letter noted.

In April 2019, APPA, EEI, and NRECA submitted joint comments on the Safe and Secure Operations of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued by the FAA. Those comments advocated for an additional rulemaking that would allow the integration of drones into the nation’s airspace, including for utility operations beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).

The recent joint letter builds off those comments, as well as a recent FAA-convened Aviation Rulemaking Committee for BVLOS operations, which includes electric utilities.

In early March, the Aviation Rulemaking Committee concluded nine months of discussion, deliberation, and consensus building and provided the FAA with its final report and recommendations for performance-based regulatory requirements to normalize safe, scalable, economically viable, and environmentally advantageous BVLOS operations. 

In their letter, the trade groups said that among the most critical recommendations provided by the Aviation Rulemaking Committee are minor changes to right-of-way rules for low altitude operations, particularly shielded operations under 400 feet.

Under the recommended changes, drones being operated by electric companies within 100 feet of their electric lines would be given right-of-way over all other manned aircraft. “This change recognizes the importance of critical infrastructure inspections and would allow electric utilities to perform these inspections in a more efficient manner, while also recognizing the low likelihood of manned aircraft operating in the same airspace. This recommended change does not absolve electric utilities operating drones of their duty to detect and avoid other aircrafts, but rather gives them the priority in the airspace while performing inspections of their critical infrastructure in their own rights-of-way,” APPA, EEI and NRECA said.

The Committee also recommended providing a path forward for extended visual line of sight operations (EVLOS), where a visual observer other than the remote pilot ensures the airspace is clear of hazards.

Currently, the remote pilot must be able to personally see the drone through the entire flight. Adopting EVLOS operations would provide an alternative route for linear infrastructure inspections by using visual observers to ensure the airspace remains clear. This option, which already is being employed by some electric companies operating under waivers, presents lower barriers to entry than BVLOS operations and requires visual observers and the remote pilot to remain in constant communication regarding hazards, ensuring a safe operating environment.

“Providing a regulatory pathway for the expanded use of drones BVLOS is a priority for us and our members,” APPA, EEI and NRECA said in encouraging the FAA to prioritize a rulemaking that codifies the Aviation Rulemaking Committee recommendation.

The groups also also encouraged the FAA to issue interim guidance on BVLOS operations to allow electric utilities to operate BVLOS and EVLOS to perform critical infrastructure inspections now “while we collectively work toward the promulgation of a final rule.”