Xcel Energy UAS program lead explains expansion efforts

By Luke Geiver | July 07, 2016

Eileen Lockhart, UAS program lead at Xcel Energy, has helped the major utility provider transform what was once a good idea into a company-wide UAS initiative and soon-to-be operational UAS team. Lockhart oversees Xcel Energy’s new program to implement unmanned aircraft systems into day-to-day operations in the field and the data center. “We need to work more efficiently,” Lockhart said, “and the promise of UAS is very attractive.” 

Xcel serves multiple states, including Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin. The company has electricity, natural gas, renewable energy and transmission assets. Xcel inspects 320,000 miles of electricity and natural gas infrastructure, thousands of substations and dozens of power plants in the eight states it serves. 

After starting their UAS work in 2013, Lockhart is now leading her team through what she calls the build-out phase. “We are developing a cross-functional, enterprise-wide team to look at technology and find a way to embrace it,” she said. Part of the build-out process involves reviewing internal processes and procedures and see how UAS can be applied. The team is also working to educate utility regulators on how Xcel can use UAS for inspections while providing benefits to its customers. 

Lockhart intends to lead an internal team of pilots and opertors while also working with third-party vendors and service providers. To date, Xcel has performed multiple proof of concept missions. Xcel has used sUAS to inspect substations, transmission lines, gas pipelines, ash piles, wind turbines and various indoor locations at power plants. In Texas, Xcel performed a beyond visual line of sight job across 20 miles of transmission line northwest of Amarillo. In Minnesota, a UAS was used to inspect wind tower blades. In Colorado, several exposed gas lines were inspected via UAS. 

The company’s newest UAS-based proof-of-concept initiative will take place in North Dakota. Working with a collaborative team including the North Dakota Department of Commerce, Elbit Systems of America, GE Grid Solutions and Waypoint Global Solutions, Xcel will be part of a mission to fly a large-scale UAS over electrical utility infrastructure. The flights will be flown as if the UAVs were responding to natural disasters that had impacted the infrastructure. Along with a large UAV, a small UAV will be flown. Data collected from the flights will be put through advanced data modeling and analysis that could help lead to better damage assessment estimates and quicker restoration times following a disaster. 

Using drones to send data and photos back to a control center to be analyzed immediately will help save time, money and lives as well as restore electrical service faster, according to the University of North Dakota’s Center For Innovation, a partner on the project. Xcel originally approached the Center for Innovation about partnering on the project. Through a ResearchND grant, the Center for Innovation secured $1 million in funding for the project. 

“The Center for Innovation has created a UAS Commercialization cluster within its tech incubator that now hosts 23 UAS-related companies that are working in the different sectors of the drone industry, from software to services, sensors to data,” said Bruce Gjovig, Director and Entrepreneur Coach for the UND Center for Innovation. 

Following the release of what could be the small UAS rules, Lockhart said her team is excited and intends to find ways to legally embrace UAS. “We want to know how we are going to make this repeatable and scalable within our operations,” she said. 

Part of the challenge for Lockhart’s UAS team is to change Xcel’s legacy approach to work—with people doing boots on the ground inspections—and get them to fly drones. The change will impact multiple parts of its business, she said. “Utility companies are usually pretty conservative. Embracing new technology is always hard, it forces change,” she said, adding that for her team, however, “It’s looking optimistic.” 

The electric utility industry at a glance: 

According to the Edison Electric Institute, EEI member companies (which include a national list of which Xcel is involved) spent a record $42 billion in grid investments in 2014 and an additional $131 billion in operations and maintenance. 

As of May 2016, 18 of EEI’s members held section 333 exemptions from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to fly UAS commercially.