The North Dakota Integration Pilot Program and Xcell Energy have been issued by waivers by the Federal Aviation Administration allowing them to conduct unmanned aerial systems flights with a chase plan or visual observers, according to an announcement made Friday, Aug. 16, from Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

“These updated waivers for the North Dakota IPP and Xcel Energy are a big win and, with them in place, companies across the country should recognize that our state is the location of choice for advanced UAS operations,” Hoeven said. “The waivers strengthen the federal, state and private partnerships we’ve built and enable the testing and implementation of this technology for public, commercial, rural and urban applications. That means our test site and pilot program can provide unmatched opportunities to demonstrate the benefits of unmanned aircraft, including cost-savings and safer working environments, while also helping to advance the technology’s full and safe integration into the national airspace.”

Specifically, Xcel Energy can now conduct unmanned flights without a visual observer within 100 feet above and 20 feet laterally of the company’s transmission lines across eight states, including in North Dakota.

“Our work on unmanned aircraft systems with Sen. Hoeven demonstrates that collaboration benefits our customers, the economy and the environment,” said Kent Larson, executive vice president and group president of operations for Xcel Energy. “Our latest waiver is a significant step forward as we build on our industry leading use of drones to improve the safety and reliability of the electrical grid. North Dakota is a national pioneer in developing new ways to use drone technology."

The IPP waiver expands the ability of the state to conduct flights in urban environments and over people. Further, the waiver incorporates a night flight authorization.

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“Removing additional crewmembers like visual observers to enable beyond visual line of sight operations is a critical step to realizing the full benefit of UAS,” said Nick Flom, executive director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site. “These two ground-breaking approvals will make the North Dakota IPP and Xcel Energy’s UAS operations safer, more reliable and more efficient, whether its inspecting transmission lines across the country or flying in an urban environment.”