Hoeven: FAA Issues Waiver for North Dakota IPP, XCEL Energy to Conduct Broader Range of UAS Flights Without Visual Observer

Waivers Follow Senator Pressing FAA to Provide Certainty for BVLOS Operations in North Dakota

WASHINGTON – Senator John Hoeven today announced that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued waivers for both the North Dakota’s Integration Pilot Program (IPP) and Xcel Energy, allowing them to conduct a broader range of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) flights without a chase plane or other visual observers. The waivers come as the result of Hoeven’s efforts with the FAA, including with Ali Bahrami, Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety, to help provide certainty for beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) UAS operations in North Dakota. Hoeven secured a commitment from Bahrami to provide a specific list of requirements and a timeline that would allow BVLOS operations to proceed on a routine basis.

“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,” said Senator Hoeven. “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.”  

“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.”

“Our work on unmanned aircraft systems with Senator 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, and we thank the senator for his leadership and support integrating drones into the national airspace.”

North Dakota IPP

The IPP waiver expands the ability of the state to conduct BVLOS flights in urban environments and over people. Further, the waiver incorporates the night flight authorization that Hoeven helped secure for the test site into the IPP’s operations.

Xcel Energy 

Under its initial waiver, Xcel Energy was limited to conducting BVLOS line inspections in a small geographic area in Colorado. The new waiver moves the company from an authority based on a specific location to one based on meeting certain operational criteria, greatly expanding its ability to test and develop UAS applications. 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.

BVLOS Operations

Hoeven previously worked with the FAA to secure the BVLOS authorization for the test site and establish the IPP. Further, the senator supported the joint research between the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, Xcel Energy and others that helped lead to the company’s initial partnership with the FAA. 

However, prior to today’s new waivers, the FAA had only provided limited permission for BVLOS activities under these authorities, which limited the ability of the test site and the state to advance the safe integration of UAS into the national airspace.