Southern Company’s Aerial Services and Mississippi State University’s Raspet Flight Research Lab recently reached a milestone on a joint research project that will help expand Southern Company’s use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to map critical infrastructure, assess weather-related damage and conduct routine utility inspections.
At a proof-of-concept demonstration in Bay Minette, Ala., the team showcased the capabilities of a large UAS with integrated sensors to gather data that will contribute to the research project, flying 28 miles of transmission assets that included approximately 400 structures.
The team also used a helicopter with a high-resolution camera to capture footage and evaluate its sensor technology and to look at potentially transferring the technology to the large drone in the future.
“This research work is a game-changer,” said Mississippi Power President and CEO Anthony Wilson, who chairs the Mississippi State University Foundation. “The data and knowledge we gain through this partnership will help improve safety and reliability, reduce costs and enable us to respond quicker should incidents in our system occur.”
The collaboration between Southern Company and MSU will enable the use of larger, more sophisticated drones in pursuing beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the Southern Company system’s inspection and mapping efforts.
“We are proud of the continued research partnership with Southern Company,” said MSU Vice President for Research and Economic Development Julie Jordan. “Through investment in this technology, Southern Company is leading the way for broadscale industry adoption. This flight operation and remote sensing research illustrates the profound safety benefits UAS offer to the utility industry and supports not only Southern Company but the industries and citizens that rely on their services.”
Next steps for the team are to determine on-board sensor systems that would enable drones to detect and avoid other aircrafts in surrounding airspace and enhance capabilities for communicating with drones from further distance.
Waiver enables remote inspection and mapping
Southern Company’s UAS team also recently announced that the FAA has granted Southern Company approval to remotely launch and operate drones at Alabama Power's Plant Barry.
The waiver, the first of its kind obtained by the company, allows advanced BVLOS operations. Operators will use drones to map and inspect stacks, transmission lines and basins at Plant Barry. Compared to traditional manual inspection methods, remotely operated dock-based drones will help perform safer, more efficient recurring inspections of critical infrastructure.
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