French drone and aerial data processing provider Delair-Tech and utility RTE said they set a distance record on June 8 by flying a small fixed-wing drone for 30 miles for the first time using a 3G cellular network for control. The beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) operation between RTE’s Distré and Assais-les-Jumeaux substations in western France was designed to inspect a 400,000-volt powerline.
France’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGAC) approved a specific flight corridor for the experimental flight. Two pilots participated in the takeooff phase and two other pilots landed the aircraft, a 4.4-pound (2 kg) Delair-Tech DT18 composite airplane. The DT18 flew the route on autopilot, guided by GPS waypoints.
RTE started exploring the use of drones in its operations in 2011, and last year started using drones more extensively for shorter-range inspections of its electrical transmission network and cable laying.
“More flexible to use, the UAV offers a complementary solution to helicopter inspections for network maintenance conducted by RTE,” said Patrick Bortoli, the utility company’s director of maintenance. “This first 30-mile flight illustrates the RTE’s commitment to constant innovation that contributes to electricity that is safer, cheaper, and more respectful of the environment.”
The milestone in France complemented other recent BVLOS achievements by drone researchers.
The Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems, which oversees the FAA-designated Nevada UAS test site, led a team that on May 5 flew a larger Latitude HQ-40 hybrid quadrotor aircraft 97 miles from a location in central Texas to the city of Austin, using visual observers along the way and enhanced radios and cellular communications for command and control.
Rockwell Collins and BNSF Railway, partners in an FAA “Pathfinder” project, have demonstrated BVLOS drone flights for long linear operations such as track inspections. Unmanned aircraft fitted with the Rockwell Collins CNPC-1000 data link radio were handed off between BNSF positive train control towers in a multi-node network covering 200 miles of track in BNSF's Clovis, New Mexico, operational subdivision.