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Xcel Energy Launches Drones For Power Line Inspections With A Twist

By Tori Mason

DENVER (CBS4)- Xcel Energy has a new way to inspect the hundreds of thousands of miles of electric and natural gas systems-- from the air. This time, the FAA granted Xcel a special waiver for the process.

The utility company is using drones to make sure that safety standards are being met.

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"Today's flight takes us a step closer to fully integrating unmanned aircraft into our operations," said Ben Fowke, chairman, president and CEO, Xcel Energy, in a statement. "This innovative technology is revolutionizing our work by improving the safety, efficiency and cost effectiveness of maintaining and protecting the grid for our customers."

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Drone pilots are able to remotely operate the 35-pound device that is equipped with two cameras. That allows Xcel Energy to collect data on the condition of power lines and transmission towers.

Drones can easily check for storm damage and assess repair needs, all while keeping technicians out of high and tight work spaces.

They're also able to inspect hard to reach locations. This could mean faster response times, especially for areas with remote transmission lines like the mountains.

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The FAA granted Xcel Energy special permission to conduct beyond-visual-line-of-sight flights under a waiver. That allows the company to commercially operate a drone without visual observers or a chase aircraft.

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"Leading the development of unmanned aircraft builds on our longstanding commitment to safety for our workers, the public and the environment. This is especially important in Colorado where inspecting power lines in the mountains and remote locations is challenging work," said David Eves, executive vice president, group president-utilities, Xcel Energy, in a statement.

The utility estimates flying drones beyond the line of sight will cost between $200 and $300 per mile compared to helicopter flights that cost an average of $1,200 to $1,600 per mile.

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The drones can also access environmentally sensitive area since they don't spend much time on the ground.

Xcel says drones can only go five miles out of the ground pilot's sight, but they are working to get them flying over 50 miles out to better serve their customers.

Tori Mason is an award-winning reporter for CBS4 This Morning. Follow her on Twitter @ToriMasonTV.

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