The American Public Power Association recently submitted joint comments with the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) on two recent proposals by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that seek to improve rules for commercial operators of drones, including utilities that use or seek to use drones for infrastructure inspection, siting, and other operational functions.
The three trade groups on April 15 submitted joint comments in response to the “Safe and Secure Operations of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” (ANPRM) that was issued by the FAA (Docket No. FAA-20181086).
The ANPRM invited comment to help the FAA assess whether to conduct a formal rulemaking on drone-related issues such as stand-off distances, payload restrictions, altitude, airspeed, and performance limitations.
Among other things, the associations said that the FAA should not establish an across-the-board stand-off distance restriction for all small unmanned aircraft system operations.
“The electric industry has successfully operated under the Part 107 performance-based rules which properly balance the need for flexibility in our operations with public safety,” the groups told the FAA.
Part 107 is the common name for the current drone regulations that were created in 2016. It stands for the part in the Code of Federal Regulations where they are found.
They said that the flexibility in Part 107’s performance-based rules allows for much wider UAS operations to be safely conducted. “As a result, the electric industry knows from experience that the adoption of any specific stand-off distance, whether vertical or horizontal, has the potential to negatively impact electric utility UAS operations.”
The trade groups said that if the FAA determines that a stand-off distance is necessary, it should adopt separate stand-off distances for the owner/operators of the electric facilities similar to how the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations have different sets of minimum approach distances (i.e., stand-off distances) to electric facilities for qualified and non-qualified electrical workers.
The American Public Power Association, EEI, and NRECA said that while they do not support an across-the-board mandatory stand-off distance, “we would support the establishment of stand-off distances for non-utility operated UAS near electric infrastructure.”
The groups said that UAS operated by inexperienced or careless non-utility pilots have the potential to cause outages, violate federal reliability standards, and potentially expose critical energy infrastructure information.
These concerns have led the three organizations to support Section 2209 of the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016, which would allow electric utilities to petition the FAA to restrict the operation of UAS in close proximity to energy infrastructure.
“Creating a stand-off distance from electric infrastructure would protect this infrastructure from UAS interference, whether benign or nefarious, thereby reducing the potential for harm to some of our nation’s most critical infrastructure,” the groups told the FAA.
The groups also weighed in on the question of whether the FAA should establish additional operating or performance limitations and, if so, why.
For line-of-sight missions, current Part 107 restrictions satisfactorily address issues regarding public safety and national security risks regarding the utilization of UAS by electric utilities, the American Public Power Association, EEI, and NRECA said.
“This would include all applications regarding daytime and nighttime operations. Our member utilities are generally comfortable with the Part 107 speed and altitude restrictions and believe they appropriately balance the need for flexibility with the need to ensure public safety.”
Operation of Small Unmanned Aircraft Over People Proposed Rule
The three groups also filed comments with the FAA on April 15 in response to an Operation of Small Unmanned Aircraft Over People Proposed Rule (Docket No. FAA-20181087).
The FAA proposes to amend Part 107 to enable routine small UAS operations over people and at night.
The FAA said that the Proposed Rule is based on the experience it has gained since publishing Part 107 and represents the next step in the “incremental approach” to integrating UAS into the National Airspace System to meet the demands for “increased operational flexibility.”
The American Public Power Association, EEI, and NRECA said they share the FAA’s desire to further integrate small UAS operations “and appreciate the recognition that operational flexibility must be maintained in order for this technology to reach its potential.”
Operations at night
The groups said that they support the Proposed Rule’s proposal to allow routine nighttime operations.
“UAS have demonstrated the ability to more efficiently and accurately identify damage over traditional methods in certain operational circumstances. In the event of an outage, this can result in a more rapid restoration of service.”
Given that outages can happen at any time of the day or night, the ability to conduct UAS operations at night without a waiver is a significant benefit to electric utilities, the American Public Power Association, EEI, and NRECA said.
“Nighttime operations are also critical when responding to storms or natural disasters. Operating small UAS at night along with helicopters and/or small UAS during the day will effectively cut patrol time in half by allowing around the clock operations yielding critical information to the storm centers to make better informed decisions on restoration work planning. UAS operations additionally have the potential to deliver valuable data that is not available via helicopter inspection. The ultimate result will be a quicker and more efficient restoration and better information to electric customers,” the groups told the FAA.
“Most importantly, using small UAS in these instances would also improve safety for personnel by allowing utilities to conduct these inspections without putting a person near potentially dangerous conditions or high voltage facilities.”
Operations over people
The groups said they also support the FAA’s proposal to allow routine operations over people, when such operations can be done with minimal risk.
The ability to conduct such operations has the potential to benefit electric utilities in multiple ways, they noted.
“For example, under the current Part 107 regulations, inspecting a substation using a small UAS requires removing all substation employees from the area being inspected to comply with Part 107’s prohibition against operations over uninvolved persons.”
The American Public Power Association, EEI, and NRECA said that the final rule should require manufacturers to identify permissible modifications in terms of weight, size, and shape, as opposed to specific identification of a make or model of equipment.
“This performance-based approach will ensure that future technologies that offer increased benefits to the electric industry UAS operators can be accommodated within the established framework developed herein,” the groups said in their comments.
They support the need for manufacturer accountability and support the Proposed Rule with one modification.
The Proposed Rule would give manufacturers flexibility in how they notify UAS owners of an issue. These options include, but are not limited to, a notice on the manufacturer’s website, electronic notification to all registered owners, or an update to the small UAS software.
“Given the importance of this information, the FAA should require a more uniform approach to how this type of information is distributed. Otherwise, each UAS manufacturer could adopt a different method, leaving owners with the obligation of tracking which manufacturer uses which method,” the American Public Power Association, EEI, and NRECA said.
Timing of a final rule
The groups noted that the FAA has been clear that it will not finalize the Proposed Rule until it has first finalized its policy concerning remote identification of small UAS.
While they appreciate the importance of remote identification and the role it plays in ensuring that expanded UAS operations can be conducted safely, the groups expressed their concern “with the continuing delays in when the FAA expects to formally propose the remote identification rulemaking and the resulting delays in the ability for the utility industry to benefit from the advances proposed in the Proposed Rule.”
They pointed out that the delays associated with the remote identification rulemaking have impacts beyond the finalization of the Proposed Rule in Docket No. FAA-20181087.
Specifically, the groups said that remote identification is a necessary element before any rulemaking which would permit routine BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) operation “and is therefore of great importance to the electric utility industry.”
Remote identification is also important for owners of critical infrastructure to identify wayward UAS, whether nefarious or benign in intent.
When the FAA eventually releases counter UAS rules and rules for owners of critical infrastructure to petition for “no fly” zones, remote identification is necessary to enforce these rules.
“As a result, we respectfully request that the FAA expedite the release of the remote identification rulemaking as a necessary step in fulfilling Congress’ directive to integrate small UAS into the National Airspace System.”
To learn more about how public power utilities are utilizing drones, read this Public Power Daily story.