An expanded waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration will allow Xcel Energy to expand the use of drones to inspect power lines.

The utility has been using drones to inspect transmission lines under several limited waivers.

"It has been a challenge with all the separate waivers and it was hard to pick up the speed and momentum, but this really is a turning point for us on that transmission side of the effort," said

North Dakota Xcel manager Mark Nisbet. He said the company has permission to fly long distances over power lines in eight states, including Minnesota.

The waiver allows flight beyond visual line of sight, meaning the drone can fly beyond where the pilot on the ground can see it. Nisbet said Xcel has proven to the FAA it can safely operate drones beyond line of sight.

Xcel is also partnering with the Federal Aviation Administration to develop operational and safety requirements for drone use by utilities. 

Licensed pilots will fly the small helicopters that weigh less than 55 pounds. The drones will first be used on a 50 mile stretch of power line in Colorado, then starting next year, the company plans to expand drone inspections to other states where it has infrastructure.

Xcel regularly inspects more than 320,000 miles of electrical and natural gas lines in eight states.

Larson said another significant benefit of drones will be inspecting power line damage when storms knock out electricity.

"With drones we can go out, survey an area, quickly assess it. We'll know what kind of equipment to bring when we go out there, what kind of materials, and our restoration processes will be much quicker than they've ever been before," said Larson.

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