Drone Completes 10-Mile Powerline-Monitoring Demo

By S.L. Fuller | August 29, 2017
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Rockwell Collins’ CNPC-1000 Command and Control data link, integrated into a Pulse Aerospace Vapor 55, undergoes testing at the University of Iowa’s OPL before embarking on a 10-mile flight beyond visual line of sight along power line infrastructure owned by Ameren Corp. near Newton, Illinois

Photo courtesy of Rockwell Collins

The industry has taken another step toward safe beyond-line-of-sight unmanned aircraft system (UAS) operations. Rockwell Collins said it, along with Black & Veatch, successfully demonstrated a flight of this nature along nearly 10 miles of powerline infrastructure with a Pulse Aerospace Vapor 55 drone.

As part of the FAA’s Focus Area Pathfinder initiative, BNSF Railway has demonstrated such drone operations on multiple occasions. One round of BNSF Railway drone flight tests involved a Rockwell Collins command and control data link. The railway’s first beyond-line-of-sight operation took place in 2015 as a joint project with Boeing’s Insitu.


“Everyday there’s roughly 500 people on that track somewhere, or looking at a bridge, underside of the bridge, on top of the bridge, looking at the right of way, inspecting vegetation,” Todd Graetz, the railway’s UAS program director, said during a 2015 presentation. “We run an incredibly safe environment, but it’s an unforgiving environment. And we’re a company that is pathologically focused on hedging risk out of our operations. Therefore, any tool, no matter how small, if it can make a basis point adjustment in potential risk, it’s something we’re interested in. And of course, unmanned aircraft play a great role for us in giving us the ability to supplement what we’re doing.”

Graetz will be answering questions about drones during R&WI’s Rotorcraft Business and Technology Summit next month in Fort Worth, Texas. He and two other UAS experts will participate in the last panel of the event.

Rockwell Collins said that it leveraged its experience with BNSF Railway while conducting the demonstration with Black & Veatch. A similar safety case was applied, Rockwell Collins said, to show that the CNPC-1000 command and control data link and webUAS operations management technologies could be used in industries besides railway.

“Monitoring critical infrastructure, particularly those in rural areas beyond line of sight, can be done much more efficiently and effectively through the use of UAS technology,” said Ken Schreder, VP of strategic programs, information management services at Rockwell Collins. “We’ve created a mobile beyond-line-of-sight system with networked command and control capability which enables us to demonstrate the benefits to infrastructure customers.”

Using powerline infrastructure owned by Illinois-based Ameren Corporation, the demonstration was also observed by Northern Plains UAS Test Site and the University of Iowa’s Operator Performance Laboratory. The laboratory coordinated with Rockwell Collins to integrate the data link into the test vehicle, as well as to configure and fly the drone during the demonstration.

Black & Veatch engineered, designed and procured the temporary network that enabled the CNPC-1000 radio connectivity, Rockwell Collins said. It also took part in a joint project management effort with Ameren, coordinating parties involved in the test.

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