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Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS or drones) can 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 allow drone use in some circumstances, but these rules generally preclude operations beyond visual line-of-sight, over long distances, or at night—circumstances in which drones are particularly helpful. The American Public Power Association (APPA or Association) believes that Congress and the FAA should take greater steps to facilitate drone use in utility operations to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and safety of utility operations.
Drones are a particularly cost-effective and safe way for electric utilities to assess storm damage, survey distribution and transmission equipment, and support construction and repair. They have the potential to replace costly conventional inspection techniques with streamlined, automated inspection processes that may be more precise and less cumbersome than existing technology. Some public power utilities already deploy drones in routine surveys of electric power equipment and support of construction and repair, and others are investigating how to use them. However, FAA regulations have not kept pace with this evolving technology and, in many cases, do not enable utility users to unleash the potential that drones offer to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of infrastructure inspection and disaster recovery efforts. In fact, until 2016, the law did not explicitly provide for the integration of commercial drone operation into the national airspace.
Congressional and Regulatory Action
As required in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, the FAA released final rules on June 21, 2016, for commercial operation of small unmanned aircraft systems. These rules, referred to collectively as “Part 107,” made it easier for businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies to use drones for a variety of purposes. However, these rules do not allow users to operate beyond visual line-of-sight, at night, or over people, nor do they establish clear guidance for operating during emergencies. They also do not clearly set forth a process to allow owners of critical infrastructure to deem airspace over that infrastructure a “no-fly” zone for drone operations by private citizens. Several public power utilities are operating drones for infrastructure inspection and emergency recovery under Part 107, but these regulatory limitations may interfere with the widespread integration of drones into the planning and recovery efforts of electric utilities, as well as with the implementation of security measures to protect critical infrastructure.
On July 15, 2016, the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016 (FESSA), was signed into law. Among other things, this legislation included new aviation safety provisions and multiple guidelines pertaining to drones, including directing the FAA to issue rules enabling the use of drones during certain emergencies and disaster response efforts, as well as beyond visual line-of-sight and at night. The legislation also directed the agency to develop a process for the prevention of drone use around critical infrastructure, such as electric generation and transmission facilities. Despite these efforts, FESSA did not go far enough to encourage widespread use of drones in utility operations, nor did it set a deadline for the creation of regulations with respect to critical infrastructure.
In the fall of 2017, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began developing infrastructure selection methodology to support the 2016 FAA reauthorization law’s goal of restricting drone usage over designated critical infrastructure. APPA submitted comments on DHS’s proposed methodology to ensure that critical public power infrastructure is protected in any future rules, but neither DHS nor the FAA has acted on this guidance. In May 2018, the FAA announced its 10 local and state “drone partners” for its Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program. This program was initiated pursuant to a presidential memorandum issued by President Trump in October 2017 to encourage state, local, and tribal governments to assist federal regulators in establishing a regulatory framework that safely encourages innovation and drone integration.
On October 5, 2018, President Trump signed into law H.R. 302, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, which includes several drone provisions that will be helpful to public power. The new law prescribes a timeline by which the FAA must initiate a rulemaking for creating no-fly designations over critical infrastructure, and it requires the FAA to complete a rulemaking within a year of introducing the proposed rule. It also improves the waiver process to operate drones beyond visual line-of-sight, at night, or over people. In addition, it requires the FAA to create a new process for electric utilities to apply for waivers when operating drones during emergencies. The agency is also required to implement several new safety measures related to recreational drone users and counter-UAS technology.
American Public Power Association Position
APPA believes that H.R. 302 will improve drone regulations for utility infrastructure inspection and operations and will make it easier for utilities to use drones during emergency recovery and disaster situations. The legislation will also allow public power utilities to work with the federal government to protect critical assets by outlawing the operation of drones by private citizens over and around critical infrastructure. As the FAA and other relevant agencies begin to implement the provisions of H.R. 302, public power will continue to work with these agencies and Congress on the development of new laws and regulations to keep pace with this rapidly evolving technology.