Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy is a utility industry leader providing clean, safe, reliable energy to customers spanning eight Western and Midwestern states, including North Dakota.  In addition to providing reliable energy and reducing carbon emissions, the company is focused on ways to improve efficiencies and provide cost savings for its customers. One of the ways they’re doing that is through the use of drone technology.


Drone Innovation

Over the last several years, Xcel Energy has made the commitment to invest in and use drones to inspect its electric and natural gas systems. The company uses this technology to survey more than 320,000 miles of electricity and natural gas infrastructure to ensure the safety and reliability of its energy system. Xcel Energy’s commitment to drones also includes strategic partnerships with state government test sites (Northern Plains UAS Test Site), the Federal Aviation Administration, and private sector companies.

“We’re excited to use drone technology to bring value to our customers by improving energy reliability and safety,” said Mark Nisbet, principal, Xcel Energy-North Dakota. “This work involves collaboration between public and private partners that will benefit the state, the economy, our customers and workers, and the environment for years to come.”

Unmanned Future

In addition to using drones to inspect important infrastructure, Xcel Energy has also worked to test and demonstrate how drones could be used following a disaster, reducing the time for emergency and utility crews to respond and restore power. In North Dakota, Xcel Energy has worked closely with the Northern Plain UAS Test Site as a partner in researching possible solutions for such disasters. As a result of this partnership, Xcel Energy launched a live disaster response demonstration over Mayville, North Dakota that coincided with the Drone Focus conference in Fargo during the summer of 2017.

This conference also played a key role in North Dakota and Xcel Energy being selected to participate in the latest effort from the FAA on their Integration Pilot Program. This program is an opportunity for state, local, and tribal governments to partner with private sector entities, such as UAS operators or manufacturers, to accelerate safe UAS integration. Through this program Xcel Energy and North Dakota will focus on addressing safety issues and developing protocol for beyond visual line of sight during flights over people and night flights.

“Xcel Energy was able to showcase innovation, safety and a customer first mentality with this flight,” said Nicholas Flom, Director of Northern Plains UAS Test Site. “Utilizing a large UAS after a major disaster is not only an incredible use case but also demonstrated the countless ways a UAS can help support Xcel Energy.”

Through its previous work with the FAA, Xcel Energy has already helped develop regulations and requirements for unmanned aircraft operations in the utility industry. What’s more, with permission granted from the FAA, in September Xcel Energy became the first U.S. utility company to fly drones beyond the line of sight during a transmission line inspection in Denver.  

“The use of drones beyond the visual line of sight is a game changer for Xcel Energy, said Nisbet. “This innovative technology is revolutionizing our work by improving the safety, efficiency and cost effectiveness of maintaining and protecting the grid for our customers.”

Xcel Energy is a strategic partner of Emerging Prairie. The company recognizes the value of collaboration within the drone industry and with federal and state government, local entrepreneurs, and the private sector.  As the utility industry continues to innovate, Xcel Energy will continue to find ways to use drones that will benefit customers, the company, the state and environment.

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Brent McNeal