The U.S. electric sector has broadly welcomed a federal proposal that would clear the way for wide commercial use of drones.
It's easy to see why. Small unmanned aircraft systems -- commonly called drones -- offer a convenient way for utilities to inspect transmission lines and investigate storm damage.
But recent security breaches have given some in the power industry pause. In one mysterious episode last fall, drones flew over restricted airspace at 13 different nuclear plants in France. Officials still don't know who was behind the controls.
That and other similar cases this year have raised red flags at the U.S. Nuclear Energy Institute.
David Kline, the industry group's director of security, urged caution last week in comments to the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency drafting the new regulations.
"Although NEI is not aware of any unauthorized flights of [small unmanned aircraft systems] at or near U.S. commercial nuclear power plants, the present FAA regulatory regime and the Proposed Rule are not sufficient to address such flights," Kline said.
He suggested adding a provision to bar drone operators from flying within a roughly 3-mile radius of any nuclear power plant licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"The unauthorized operation of [small unmanned aircraft systems] should be prohibited in airspace above and surrounding these facilities," he said, although he added that the devices "may have beneficial uses for [NEI's] members."
One application could counter the drone threat with more drones -- Exelon Corp., the nation's largest nuclear power plant operator, suggested using small unmanned aircraft to patrol "secured areas" in comments filed with the FAA.
Exelon subsidiary Commonwealth Edison has already received conditional approval from the FAA to survey storm damage with drones in the Midwest (EnergyWire, April 14). ComEd was the first utility to receive such authorization in February, but several others have followed suit since.
Commercial drone pioneers may bump up against a patchwork of state regulations as lawmakers grapple with privacy questions that are outside the scope of the FAA's rulemaking, according to Brendan Schulman, who leads the unmanned aircraft systems group at law firm Kramer Levin.
He said firms should urge state legislatures to "separate out the types of applications that raise privacy issues from those that don't."
"What we will see otherwise are restrictions on the use of drones, including by industry, on the basis of overstated privacy concerns," he said, noting that for utilities, "you're not taking pictures of someone through their window -- you're measuring and inspecting infrastructure."
Nuclear power producers may have their own privacy worries as more drones take off across the country.
Monika Coflin, a technical assistant for the division of security policy at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in a blog post last week that drones "can be used to conduct surveillance to gather intelligence about facility security."
"Drones may be fun toys, but they pose a number of concerns," she said, warning that they could also be used to deliver explosive payloads, taking after their much larger cousins in the military.
Pilots of conventional aircraft are already advised not to linger around sites such as power plants, dams and refineries. Drone operators would be held to the same expectations.
Schulman, whose firm has worked with the UAS America Fund LLC, said that because they're so small, "it would be easy to overstate the threat to infrastructure from these drones in the absence of an appropriate analysis."
"I understand the concern about not wanting drones to take out power lines or things like that," he said. "But that seems like a minimal threat, because many of these systems are very lightweight and I don't think pose a hazard to the actual power plants," which are built to withstand severe weather and other disasters.
"It's important to ask what we're trying to protect against -- I think someone who's planning to do something malicious is not going to be deterred by a regulation," he added.