offshore wind energy

How the U.S. offshore wind energy industry could benefit from drones

The following post was contributed by Todd Sumner. Todd is is an attorney and legislative affairs advocate representing clients on a wide range of environmental, renewable energy, unmanned systems technologies and regulatory matters. He can be reached at todd@sumnerlawoffices.com.

2016 has so far been quite remarkable for both the U.S. offshore wind energy industry and the drone industry. Deepwater Wind  this month made history by completing construction of the nation’s first offshore wind farm off the coast of Block Island, Rhode Island, marking the beginning of a new era for American offshore wind energy.

And this week, Part 107, the  much-awaited Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) final rules allowing for greater integration of non-recreational operations of small unmanned aerial vehicles into the National Airspace System (NAS) become effective, further expanding the UAS industry for the economic benefit of numerous existing businesses and other industries, including the fledgling U.S. offshore wind energy industry.

Massive growth in wind energy

The overall U.S. wind energy industry is growing: the cost of wind power has declined over the past several years,the recent extension of the wind energy production tax credit is providing a strong degree of regulatory certainty for the industry, and more efficient construction methods have made wind power today more viable in the power sector than ever before.

High profile corporate entities are unilaterally pursuing their own power purchase agreements of wind and other renewable energy sources and there has been an increase in utilities seeking to invest in wind energy developments. States including California, Hawaii and New York are modifying their renewable portfolio standards.  Massachusetts has a new law that calls for the use of 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind energy within the next decade. The U.S. Department of Energy is setting up for the provision of research funding off the coasts of New Jersey, Maine and a freshwater wind farm in Lake Erie. The U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) awarded 11 commercial leases off the Atlantic coast and announced in August a proposed sale notice and request for interest for commercial leasing for wind power offshore of North Carolina and announced in June a proposal to undertake a competitive lease sale offshore of New York. BOEM has received unsolicited lease requests for floating wind farm projects in the Pacific.

With Deepwater Wind’s Block Island project now fully constructed, the U.S. offshore wind energy industry’s horizon is bright as it has finally demonstrated itself and is ready to grow and adapt to address any challenges this nascent industry may face going forward.

A drone flies over the waters of Congaree River in Columbia in South Carolina on October 5, 2015. Relentless rain left large areas of the US southeast under water. The states of North and South Carolina have been particularly hard hit, but the driving rain in recent days has spared almost none of the US East Coast.  AFP PHOTO/MLADEN ANTONOV        (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Part 107 clears drones for takeoff

Part 107 now removes strict requirements around commercial drone operation, primarily that the operator  had to have a manned aircraft pilot license — an expensive and time-consuming endeavor.

Pilots can now operate commercially by passing an aeronautical knowledge exam at an approved FAA testing center or hold an existing part 61 pilot certificate and complete a small UAS online training course provided by the FAA.

While the FAA rule opens up tremendous commercial drone opportunities that could further generate job creation and economic impact, there are however, operational limitations that need to be carefully observed in order to comply with the new small UAS rule.

Key limitations include that the drone , including its payload must weigh less than 55 lbs, it must be operated within the visual line-of-sight (VLOS) of the remote pilot in command, and that it may not operate over anyone not directly participating in the operation. Drones can only be operated in daylight or civil twilight with appropriate anti-collision lighting, and cannot go faster than 100 mph, while remaining no higher than 400 feet above ground level (AGL), or if higher than 400 feet, within 400 feet of a structure.

part 107 commercial droneHow drones can help the U.S. offshore wind energy industry forge ahead

One of the core benefits of drones is they are  safer to operate and more economical and efficient than traditional manned vehicles. Drones dramatically mitigate human safety risk since no one is actually on board and are more portable, allowing for more timely and inexpensive deployment in unsafe conditions or emergency situations.

Drones are already being utilized in industries including fire management, real estate services, inspections, construction, mining, precision agriculture, and law enforcement operations.

The U.S. offshore wind energy industry is taking its very first step and going forward will be well positioned to take advantage of drone technology and the endless applications that can help reduce the installation costs of offshore wind development projects. From pre-construction surveys, minimizing risk liability for compliance with the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act to post-construction operation and maintenance inspections, the incorporation of drones will allow for a safer, more efficient undertaking of activities and tasks to help protect a project’s bottom line and ultimately the marketability of its wind energy product.

For example, drones can be deployed to assist in various pre-construction surveys (seasonal wildlife utilization) of Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) blocks for a proposed leasing area.  They can help avoid impacts to the endangered species by helping to detect listed species such as the North Atlantic right whale and then coordinate vessel avoidance measures.

In terms of  nighttime vessel operations (presuming you have been issued an FAA certificate of waiver for small UAS operations at night), drones can be equipped with a thermal imaging sensor to detect heat signatures (whales and other species) at the water surface.

UAS technology can also benefit offshore wind development in other new ways. During construction, cameras on drones can  zoom in or zoom out monitoring of construction activities in real time — useful for better coordination of construction task sequencing, identifying potential flaws in construction materials, and better assessing safety conditions for construction workers. As far as operation and maintenance, drones already have a positive track record for conducting inspections of land-based critical infrastructure including railroads, pipelines, bridges, cell towers and on-shore wind farms, allowing a more efficient and strategic assessment of operation and maintenance needs without risking human safety.

That same efficiency can easily be captured and applied to the up and coming U.S. offshore wind energy projects. The U.S. offshore wind energy industry has spread its wings to take flight and with its growing UAS Industry contemporary will soar to the greatest heights.

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