EEI, Sharper Shape partner for UAS power line inspections

By Patrick C. Miller | April 14, 2016

Using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to inspect electric utility power lines and other infrastructure isn’t a futuristic goal; it’s a mission that can be flown today, according to Tero Heinonen, founder of Sharper Shape Inc.

The Finnish company is already flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) missions with UAS in Europe, Peru, China and India. It recently formed a partnership with the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) to demonstrate and develop commercial UAS BVLOS flights for U.S. electric companies.

“Beyond visual line of sight inspections are happening now,” Heinonen said. “This is not something that will be somewhere in the future—this is today. I’m convinced that the United States will lead the way.”

Heinonen said Sharper Shape was the first company in Europe to receive permission to conduct BVLOS power line inspections using UAS weighing up to 55 pounds.

“That fact that we’ve already been doing this on a commercial scale was one of the reasons EEI decided to partner with Sharper Shape,” he explained. “We had all the experience of working with regulators in Europe.”

Sharper Shape provides fully automated inspection and maintenance planning services for infrastructure such as power lines, pipelines and railways. Heinonen said the company’s Next Eagle UAS technology relies on UAS to drastically reduce inspection and maintenance costs.

EEI—an association representing all U.S. investor-owned electric companies in 50 states—said inspections of transmission and distribution lines are currently conducted using manned helicopters or by ground crews.

“Our innovative partnership with Sharper Shape to safely develop the use of beyond visual line of sight UAS flights will provide crews with yet another tool to quickly and efficiently inspect critical assets during routine maintenance and following a storm or natural disaster,” said Chris Hickling, EEI director of government relations.

EEI and Sharper Shape are studying the business and regulatory dimensions of BVLOS flights, and intend to apply with the FAA for approval of demonstration flights later this year.

“We are not applying for a blanket-type application,” Heinonen said. “We want permission to fly exactly what is needed by the whole electricity industry.”

Demonstration flight will take place after approval is received from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“We are very optimistic that the beyond visual line of sight demonstration flights will be carried out this year,” Heinonen said.

Sharper Shape late last year opened its North American Technical and Operations Center at the University of North Dakota Center for Innovation in Grand Forks. It also has an office in Palo Alto, California.


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