Just over a year ago, an Altus UAS system was selected from over 1,200 to begin the initial trial phase of a transmission inspection project by Xcel Energy (www.xcelenergy.com NASDAQ: XEL).
The objective of this trial was to overfly Xcel transmission infrastructure, capture data for analysis and evaluate whether that data would adequately replace the work of manned aerial and ground inspection of the same infrastructure, and ultimately whether the UAS could be extended further and further each sortie, to the point where the per mile cost is less than a quarter of current methods.
A submission to the FAA was tendered in March of this year, petitioning for a beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) waiver for commercial operations. The waiver was duly issued for the prescribed criteria and contingent on the use of the Altus ORC2 electric VTOL UAS system. The issuance of this waiver itself was groundbreaking, as it involved not simply flying a UAS beyond the operator's line of sight, but actually employing this technique to capture commercial data and maintain focus on the end goal, which is to pass on inspection savings and provide a wealth of actionable data on the infrastructure condition to the Xcel operations teams and their contractors.
What is also particularly pleasing is that rather than lobby for comprehensive change around the restrictions applied to UAS applications as others are attempting to do, the Xcel Energy project group sought to integrate with current National Airspace (NAS), with all the risk mitigation and best practise operational procedures that entails, in order to satisfy the FAA. We are taking the approach of crawl, walk then run, in the form of setting milestones, achieving them safely then moving on to the next. In this manner, we continue to build on success and have helped grow the capability and commercial viability all the way from close range line of sight to the current long range beyond visual line of sight mission profiles. We have succeeded in doing this under the watchful eye of the FAA and have impressed enough that we can continue to take on more ambitious steps and continue to blaze a trail.
Other developments for the ORC2 include integration of GIS data as part of the mission planning system, so that organizations may export their own data, in a variety of industry standard formats from within their own GIS system, that can then be imported into the ORC2 flight planning software for use in defining flight plans, target objects, infrastructure, safe loiter areas, exclusion zones, terrain elevation data and more. Our system is also compatible with the excellent uGCS enterprise ground control software.
One of the main advantages Altus has over the competition is having our own flight controller or autopilot system. This enables us to respond quickly to the need for any change, maintain strict version control, ensure that customer cybersecurity and data integrity is never in doubt, adapt or upgrade the flight model and customize solutions for different applications.
Whilst automated takeoff and landing are the norm for most of our ORC2 customers, the system supports a very easily operated autopilot assisted takeoff and landing function that gives the perception of manual flight, and allows the pilot in command to very precisely position the ORC2 on landing within an extremely small area.
We also excel in the integration of sensors and their associated mounting and power requirements. Anything from optical, to thermal, to Lidar and combinations of several at once are not unusual. We have developed our own mounting systems and gimbals where required and can support cameras up to the 100 megapixel medium format type, and Lidar with range exceeding 1,000 feet.
The next key phase of development for the Altus UAS system is the integration of a hybrid powerplant. The ORC3 is our new hybrid gas-electric version of the ORC2. The gas generator onboard gives us a continuous charge to the small flight battery pack, and with a combination of fuel and payload onboard extends the endurance of the vehicle well beyond the 2 hour mark.
This endurance and range extension is going to be a key feature further down the line with longer and longer BVLOS missions becoming a reality.
Hot on the heels of the media announcements by Xcel Energy last week (links and stories below), Altus continues to offer systems and packages geared towards commercial applications such as inspection, and ultimately for BVLOS operations in the USA and around the world.