A drone over an Xcel Energy solar array. Source: Xcel EnergyA drone over an Xcel Energy solar array. Source: Xcel Energy

Xcel Energy will be one of the first utilities in the U.S. to routinely fly unmanned aircraft beyond the operator’s line of sight when it begins surveying transmission lines near Denver.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced it authorized the flights.

Starting this summer, the company says it will operate drones beyond visual line of the operator’s sight within a designated area around 20 miles north of Denver International Airport.

Licensed pilots will remotely operate an unmanned helicopter weighing less than 55 pounds. Xcel Energy will use command-and-control technology to ensure safe operations while it inspects transmission lines.

To conduct the flights, the company is currently working with several industry leaders, including Harris Corp., Northern Plains UAS Test Site, Phoenix Air Unmanned LLC and Altus Intelligence. When the transmission inspections are completed in the Denver area, Xcel Energy will work with the FAA to extend beyond line-of-sight operations in other states where the company provides electric service.

In January 2017, Xcel Energy entered into a Partnership for Safety Program (PSP) with the FAA to operate drones for power line inspections within visual sight of operators. The work demonstrated how unmanned aircraft improve productivity and safety as the technology allows for inspections to be completed without the use of trucks, helicopters or other utility equipment. Xcel Energy says it inspects more than 320,000 miles of electricity and natural gas infrastructure.