Written by Shane Skelton, Aii Executive Director

Commercial and private drone use has become a frequent topic of discussion around the country and in Washington, DC these days. New regulations and registration requirements from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), reports of close calls with air traffic, the desire to use drones as a retail delivery mechanism, and the FAA reauthorization debate have brought these issues to the fore. One equally important issue that has seemingly flown under the radar (pun intended) is how expanded drone use can improve how companies that operate critical infrastructure can plan for, inspect and monitor their assets.

In March, Senator Jim Inhofe (Oklahoma) – who is also Chairman of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee – introduced S. 2684, UAVs for Energy Infrastructure Act. This legislation requires the Department of Transportation to establish a process that would legally allow owners or operators of “a pipeline or other critical infrastructure” to use drones to conduct “activities to ensure compliance with Federal or State regulatory, permit, or other requirements, including to conduct surveys associated with applications for permits” for pipeline construction, maintenance, or rehabilitation.

Under the bill, drones could also be used for activities related to inspection, repairs, or responses to incidents, natural disasters, man-made disasters, severe weather or any other incident beyond the control of the operator that could cause “material damage” to the pipeline or other critical infrastructure. The bill also specifies that the rules would not be able to place “any restriction on the time of the operation” for permitted drone use.

Senator Inhofe plans to include these provisions in the pending FAA reauthorization legislation. If he is successful, drones could play a critical role in pipeline safety. There are more than 2.5 million miles of pipelines in the U.S., and pipeline operators are (and should be) expected to ensure that every inch is in compliance with Federal and State laws and regulations, inspected on a recurring schedule, and repaired as quickly as possible in the case of incident. Drones would allow for more efficient and frequent inspections by covering more ground in a shorter amount of time.

Perhaps more important than periodic inspections and routine maintenance, drones would also allow for instantaneous visual access to areas where incidents occur, or incidents are more likely due to certain circumstances, like severe weather. Knowing where infrastructure has been breached in real time, or monitoring areas where a breach becomes more likely, could facilitate more timely incident response and remediation efforts.

Using advanced technologies to improve safety should always be at the forefront of policy-makers’ minds. Why would we ever use 20th Century technologies to combat 21st Century safety issues if we had the choice? This bill serves as a great example of where public policy and technology collide resulting in stronger and more efficient safety efforts…if it passes.