Southern Company, Mississippi State University flight lab reaches milestone for UAS sensor project

Published on December 16, 2022 by Chris Galford

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At a proof-of-concept demonstration in Bay Minette, Ala., a team of researchers from Southern Company’s Aerial Services and Mississippi State University’s Raspet Flight Research Lab recently demonstrated the capabilities of a large drone with sensor capabilities to inspect transmission assets.

The unmanned aircraft system (UAS) successfully charted 28 miles and approximately 400 structures. It was accompanied by a helicopter with a high-resolution camera to document and evaluate the drone’s sensor technology. These efforts could prove important, as the partners intend to pursue more sophisticated drones for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to support Southern Company’s inspection and mapping efforts.

These mapping efforts would include critical infrastructure, weather-related damage assessment, and routine utility inspections. Next, the team will assess onboard sensor systems to enable these drones to detect and avoid other aircraft sharing their airspace, as well as improve communications with drones from farther away.

“We are proud of the continued research partnership with Southern Company,” Julie Jordan, MSU vice president for research and economic development, said. “Through investment in this technology, Southern Company is leading the way for broadscale industry adoption. This flight operation and remote sensing research illustrates the profound safety benefits UAS offer to the utility industry and supports not only Southern Company but the industries and citizens that rely on their services.”

In another boon for their efforts, the FAA recently granted Southern Company approval to launch and operate drones at its Alabama Power’s Plant Barry. For that particular case, the drones will be used to help map and inspect stacks, transmission lines, and basins around the facility, to increase safety and efficiency there.