Unmanned Aerial Systems and the Utility of the Future


UAS and the UOTF

Unmanned Aerial Systems (also called UAS or drones) are now inexpensive to acquire and cost-effective and easy to operate. UAS are already in use in many industries in the United States including energy, emergency response, and the motion picture industry. UAS technology has been used worldwide since about 2013 to conduct inspections of water and wastewater infrastructure. “The drone transmits live vision wirelessly to the operator and takes high quality photos and continuous high definition video. This allows for quick collection of more useful information that was not possible via traditional on-ground inspections.”[1]  Legally compliant use of UAS technology will result in operations that are more efficient, economical, and safer for the people who work for the utility of the future (UOTF).

Current Regulatory Restrictions

Congress made history when it passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (the Act).  The Act was signed into law on Valentine’s Day, and was recognized as a “complex, long-term initiative to incrementally modernize and transform the national airspace system.”[2]  Among other things, the Act directed the Federal Aviation Administration to integrate commercial unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace.[3]  There is, at present, a prohibition against commercial operation of drones in national airspace unless the operation falls within the scope of an exemption issued by the FAA.[4]  To date, the FAA has granted approximately 556 exemptions.  Federal rules limiting the size, technology, operator requirements, and safety precautions for UAS usage have been proposed but are expected to take two years to develop.  The new rules are expected to be less burdensome than the conditions of an exemption.  There may be special rules for so-called “microdrones”[5], and creation of a “UAS operator certificate,” which will be affordable and easier to get and maintain than the traditional pilot’s license currently required for UAS operators. 

Call to Action

The time is now for the UOTF to explore the opportunities presented by UAS systems to increase operational efficiency for clean water utilities.  Although the regulatory and legal frameworks for UAS use are still emerging, utilities can begin thinking and planning now about ways to harness this new technology.   UOTF leadership will soon find that with just a few precautions and some advance planning, operations that were expensive (traditional aerial photographs), time consuming (inspection of geographically large areas), or dangerous (tower inspection, high work) may now be accomplished much more easily through implementation of UAS approaches.


The authors of this article are part of a robust team at McGuireWoods LLP and McGuireWoods Consulting that implements sustainable technology for utilities, industry, and precision agriculture, that benefit the owners, customers, and taxpayers, not just now, but for generations to come.  For more information about UAS technology or other clean water services, contact Dale Mullen, Tricia Dunlap, or any member of the McGuireWoods Unmanned Aerial Systems/Drones team.


[1] Alister Laidlaw, Send in the Drone:  In-House Aerial Infrastructure Inspections, 77th Annual WIOA Victorian Water Indus. Operations, at 57 (Sept. 2-4, 2014). 

[2] FAA Reauthorization Act:  Progress and Challenges Implementing Various Provisions of the 2012 Act, GAO-14-285T, Highlights (Feb 5, 2014).

[3]  FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, H.R.658, 112th Congress (2012) (enacted).

[4] FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Pub. L. No. 112−95, § 333, 126 Stat. 11, 75-76 (2012).

[5] Under 4.4 pounds












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