Grand Forks-Based Partnership Looks To Test Long-Distance Drone Flight Applications

Monday proved to be a busy day for Federal Aviation Administration offices across the country as pilots scrambled to take tests and get certified to fly under new rules debuting that day.

Among the flurry of activity was a waiver application requesting approval to perform beyond-visual-line-of-sight flights by drone-based inspection company Sharper Shape.

In coordination with the Edison Electric Institute and another Grand forks drone firm, SkySkopes, this waiver would allow members of the partnership to demonstrate and develop commercial long-distance flights for electric company asset inspections, a news release said.

UAS Summit & Expo 366

In addition to submitting one of the first waiver requests, Sharper Shape and SkySkopes are working with Xcel Energy, Montana-Dakota Utilities Co., Minnkota Power Cooperative, Houston Engineering, Northern Plains Railroad, UND and the Edison Electric Institute to conduct test flights.

BVLOS flights are not covered under the new rules, known as Part 107, and require companies seeking to conduct them to submit a waiver to the FAA. During these types of flights, aircraft are able to travel 10 to 20 miles, compared to roughly 1,500 feet under visual-line-of-sight regulations.

“Inspections via long-distance drones will help us improve the reliability, resiliency and security of the power grid, which ultimately benefits our customers,” Michael Lamb, vice president, Xcel Energy operating services and enterprise transformation office, said in a statement. “This waiver is a major step toward industry-wide BVLOS asset inspections.”

The test flights will leverage Sharper Shape’s new Sharper A6 drone and Sharperscope 5.0 payload, which were also announced Monday. Attendees of the 2016 UAS Summit and Expo in Grand Forks last week were able to get a sneak preview of the aircraft’s capabilities.

The Sharper A6 inspection drone flies Aug. 24  in the Alerus Center arena in Grand Forks. Photo by Brandi Jewett/Grand Forks Herald.
The Sharper A6 inspection drone flies Aug. 24 in the Alerus Center arena in Grand Forks. Photo by Brandi Jewett/Grand Forks Herald.

The Sharper A6 drone is the world’s first drone optimized for BVLOS asset inspections. Notably, the Sharper A6 uses four redundant cellular networks to make it virtually impossible for the drone to lose communication with ground control operators, the release said.

“With Sharper Shape’s A6 drone, operators can conduct long-distance flights with peace of mind that inspections will be safe, secure and accurate,” Sharper Shape CEO Tero Heinonen said. “We’re excited to team up with SkySkopes to fulfill the mission of the EEI-Sharper Shape partnership: Make BVLOS flights a reality for U.S. electric companies in the very near future.”

In conjunction with submitting the waiver application, SkySkopes and Sharper Shape kicked off a string of test flights including using the new Sharper A6 drone via a line-of-sight demonstration Monday morning to inspect the Xcel Energy Bison Substation near Mapleton, N.D.

The aircraft also was featured in a small drone airshow celebrating the release of Part 107, which took effect midnight Monday.

“These test flights have contributed to a monumental day for the U.S. drone industry,” SkySkopes President and CEO Matt Dunlevy said. “We look forward to continuing to pioneer new developments for drone flights in the U.S. alongside Sharper Shape.”

SkySkopes  pilot Andrew Schill readies the Sharper A6 drone for flight Aug. 29 north of Mapleton, N.D. Photo by Brandi Jewett/Grand Forks Herald.
SkySkopes pilot Andrew Schill readies the Sharper A6 drone for flight Aug. 29 north of Mapleton, N.D. Photo by Brandi Jewett/Grand Forks Herald.