Colorado utility will have country’s first free-flying inspection drones

Xcel’s pilots will be able to fly the aircraft even if they can’t see it with their own eyes.

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo
A drone flies above solar panels. (Courtesy Northern Plains UAS Test Site)

A drone flies above solar panels. (Courtesy Northern Plains UAS Test Site)

Xcel Energy will be the first utility in the country to use drones in a new way.

Utilities already use drones to inspect their power lines and other infrastructure, but there’s a big catch: The pilots have to keep the vehicles within sight, which is part of federal rules for aircraft.

With a new federal approval, Xcel’s pilots will be able to fly the aircraft even if they can’t see it with their own eyes.

Xcel will use a helicopter that weighs about 55 pounds and will be operated by licensed pilots. They’ll operate in an area about 20 miles north of Denver International Airport starting this summer.

Xcel is interested in drones because it has about 320,000 miles of infrastructure to inspect. After working near Denver, the utility hopes to expand to other states.