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Southern Company, Mississippi State University’s Raspet Flight Research Lab partner to expand UAS use

Effort places Southern Company as the first investor-owned utility actively working to secure FAA certification for more sophisticated aircraft in beyond visual line of sight operations in public airspace

Southern Company and Mississippi State University are proud to announce a new collaboration that will expand the energy company’s use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to map critical infrastructure, assess weather-related damage and conduct routine utility inspections.

The collaboration between Southern Company and Mississippi State’s Raspet Flight Research Laboratory will enable the use of larger, more sophisticated UAS in pursuing beyond visual line of sight operations approval from the FAA for the energy company’s inspection and mapping efforts.

“The value proposition offered by the potential utilization of the next generation of unmanned aircraft systems in the utility industry beyond the visual line of sight is tremendous,” said Harry Nuttall, director of Aerial Services for Southern Company. “This collaboration with MSU enables us to seek out the ability to perform numerous tasks in a safer and more efficient way while expanding the very definition of what is possible for our company. This allows us to eliminate the need to place employees at risk operating helicopters and fixed wing aircraft in a hazardous wired environment.”

In 2015, after thorough exploration, Southern Company began using UAS to reduce the duration of storm-related outages and to perform power line inspections more safely, lowering operating and maintenance costs and reducing environmental impacts.

With utility infrastructure that includes more than 27,000 miles of transmission lines across 120,000 square miles in the Southeast, UAS provides the Southern Company system a quicker and more detailed assessment of areas and infrastructure impacted by severe weather.

MSU’s Raspet Flight Laboratory was designated in 2020 as the FAA’s UAS Safety Research Facility, placing the lab at the helm of studying and developing safety and certification standards as UAS become increasingly integrated in the U.S. national airspace system.

“Our efforts with Southern Company seek to facilitate increased future use of larger, more sophisticated unmanned aircraft systems,” said Tom Brooks, director of the Raspet Flight Lab. “These larger aircraft systems provide significantly enhanced safety and greater operational range, coverage, and reliability, while increasing payload capacity and on-board avionics.”

Southern Company subsidiaries, Alabama Power, Georgia Power and Mississippi Power already maintain a fleet of small Group 1 and Group 2 UAS weighing less than 55 pounds. Through collaboration with Mississippi State, the company is researching the benefits of larger Group 3 aircraft, which can weigh up to 1,320 pounds, and Group 4 aircraft weighing in excess of 1,320 pounds—both of which fly at altitudes up to 18,000 feet.

Under the new agreement, Raspet will assist Southern Company in evaluating and selecting viable Group 3 and Group 4 UAS platforms and on-board sensor systems enabling those UAS to effectively detect and avoid other aircraft in surrounding airspace. Raspet and Southern Company will work together to gather and validate safety data and operations procedures required for the FAA review and certification process.

With this pioneering effort, Southern Company remains a leader in promoting industry safety and efficiencies in utility infrastructure inspections and monitoring.

 

About MSU’s Raspet Flight Research Laboratory

MSU’s Raspet Flight Research Laboratory is the nation’s leading academic research center dedicated exclusively to the advancement of Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Raspet is the only institute in the world designated both as the FAA’s UAS Safety Research Facility and as official UAS Test Sites for both the FAA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Home to a fleet of the largest and most capable unmanned aircraft in academic use, Raspet conducts UAS research on behalf of federal agencies and commercial industry alike, and it remains a world leader in composite materials research.

MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at msstate.edu.