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Energy companies interested in or already using drones in their operations should be aware of and have plans in place to comply with regulations governing the use of unmanned aircraft.
The Federal Aviation Administration issued a rule in 2016 commonly referred to as part 107 to allow for routine civil operation of small unmanned aircraft systems weighing less than 55 pounds. The rule addresses airspace restrictions, remote pilot certification, visual observer requirements and operational limits to maintain safety and national security, but also allows individual operations to deviate from many operational restrictions if the FAA administrator finds that the proposed operation can be safely conducted.
Several FAA restrictions governing drone use such as visual line of sight, which requires operators to keep the drones within their sight while in use, and a ban on flying drones over people not directly participating in the operation, have frustrated the full utilization of drones in energy operations, said Joel Roberson, a Washington, D.C.-based partner with Holland & Knight L.L.P. For example, a drone operator can maintain visual line of sight when inspecting fixed sites such as a generation plant relatively easily, but it would be beneficial to use drones to inspect pipelines that travel great distances without starting and stopping the drones every time they leave the line of sight, he said.
Mr. Roberson predicted that 2018 will be a big year in terms of developments in drone regulation as the FAA is engaged in an unmanned aircraft system integration pilot program in which state, local and tribal governments will partner with private-sector entities such as drone operators or manufacturers to accelerate safe integration of drones.
The deadline for completing lead applications, which must be filed by the government entities, was Jan. 4.
The FAA will award a minimum of five pilot program designations, with at least one of the private-sector companies chosen to participate likely being in the energy sector as companies have expressed interest in using drones to conduct electric grid inspections beyond line of sight, he said.
One of the examples of potential proposals provided by FAA for the pilot program include disaster relief, meaning damage assessment, search and rescue, insurance appraisals and supply delivery.
But the use of drones for post-hurricane damage surveillance is already happening, experts say. The FAA granted more than 300 authorizations for unmanned aircraft systems operations on an expedited basis following last year’s devastating storms.
Years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster brought risk management and safety on energy operations to public attention, energy companies of all types are using emerging technologies to assess and mitigate risks to both third parties and their personnel.