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Unmanned aircraft researchers with Virginia Tech explore air traffic issues in power line inspections

July 25, 2016

Drone inspecting power line.

VTMAAP drone inspects power line
Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership team members (foreground, from left) Hunter Hollingshead, Matt Burton, and Andrew Kriz fly an Aeryon SkyRanger drone inspecting a Dominion Virginia power line while David Culler, chief executive officer of HAZON Solutions (far right) looks on.

Officials with the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, Dominion Virginia Power, and HAZON Solutions, a developer and service provider of small unmanned aerial vehicle inspection services, conducted drone research flights last week to determine the need for air- or ground-based visual observers during power line inspections.

The unmanned aircraft were in constant sight of ground observers daisy-chained along a three-mile section of the Dominion Virginia Power transmission corridor. During the flights, the HAZON Solutions and Virginia Tech flight crews verified the position of the aircraft as it hovered close to power lines and towers.

Information from the two days of testing will support a safety case for power infrastructure inspections that employ unmanned aircraft “beyond visual line-of-sight” — aircraft that fly beyond visual contact of observers on the ground or in chase planes.

“Beyond visual line-of-sight operations are the key enabler to efficiently using unmanned aircraft for power line and other utility inspections,” said Mark Blanks, director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership.

“Current rules require that we either pick up and move the flight crew and observers every few miles or follow the unmanned aircraft with a manned chase plane. It doesn’t make business sense to do either. For the unmanned aircraft infrastructure inspection industry to thrive, and for public utilities and home energy consumers to benefit, we need to build a safety case that will allow flying beyond line-of-sight.”

The Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership is headquartered at the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science at Virginia Tech.

“If we can use unmanned aircraft systems to augment current inspection procedures, we will substantially reduce safety risks,” said Mark Allen, director of electric transmission construction at Dominion Virginia Power. “Today, we have to dispatch helicopters or lineman to check towers and inspect equipment. Unmanned aircraft will help us ensure the high-voltage electric transmission system and rights of way are performing safely, efficiently, and reliably.”

Researchers believe unmanned aircraft flying within about 100 feet of power structures will be shielded from conventional air traffic that does not normally operate in close proximity to power lines. Flight data will be used to demonstrate to the Federal Aviation Administration that unmanned aircraft near power lines and related structures are not an air traffic safety concern.

“We were able to keep track of the aircraft at all times using GPS and flight instrumentation. The results were very encouraging,” said David Culler, chief executive officer of HAZON Solutions. “We are delighted to be a part of supporting Dominion Virginia Power in understanding the benefits of beyond visual line-of-sight operations to safely conduct routine and emergency inspections.”

The Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership was chosen by the Federal Aviation Administration in December 2013 to be one of only six national test sites for unmanned aircraft systems.

Current research at Virginia Tech’s test site includes flight beyond visual line-of-sight, flight operations over people, unmanned aircraft system airworthiness certification, air traffic management, remote sensing and payload development support, and airspace integration. 

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