Smart Grid Solutions to Federal Aviation Administration Light Monitoring Requirements

There is a growing demand for electricity that will improve the reliability of power delivery and meet requirements for procuring larger percentages of energy from renewable sources.

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By Joaquin Silva

There is a growing demand for electricity that will improve the reliability of power delivery and meet requirements for procuring larger percentages of energy from renewable sources. To do this, utilities are building new transmission lines. And, with any new structure, the approval of these new transmission corridors can be taxing. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires utilities to notify them regarding the construction of new structures and the alteration of existing structures that can affect towers within the National Airspace System in various locations including military bases, airport influence areas, U.S. border areas and hospitals using helicopters for medical airlift. These new requirements apply to new transmission and distribution lines as well as existing transmission and distribution lines-many of which may already be in violation of FAA requirements. Common examples of existing violations include towers with limited or incorrect marking and lighting that is not properly monitored.

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After the FAA is notified of a new or updated transmission structure, they conduct an inspection to see if obstruction lighting is required, and, if necessary, obstruction lighting is built. Once the obstruction lighting is installed, the FAA Advisory Circular regulations require any failure or malfunction lasting more than 30 minutes affecting a top light or flashing obstruction light, regardless of position, to be immediately reported to the appropriate flight service station (FSS). This represents an enormous unaddressed operational monitoring challenge for utilities across large geographically dispersed assets as well as potential liability risk if the utility does not comply with the FAA mandate and an incident occurs.

The Challenges of Current Monitoring Systems

The functions of the obstruction lighting must be monitored on a regular basis by visual or automatic means to ensure there are no malfunctions. Visually monitoring the light function requires dispatching helicopters and/or trouble crews, sometimes on a daily basis, with is neither cost-efficient nor effective. In addition, manual monitoring creates the risk of more errors, which creates a potential for fines and legal action should an accident occur. For each utility with at least 100 towers that require lighting, the visual monitoring of these lights can approach $1 million per year in operational costs, which would cause a significant cost burden for these utilities.

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A better option is automated monitoring. It minimizes the risk of fines and damages, human error, satisfies the FAA requirements and saves utilities high operational costs. Until recently, the use of automated systems has been difficult to accomplish because of the remote areas where transmission corridors are typically located. Since these areas often do not provide reliable cellular communications, an automated solution needs to be based on a pervasive and reliable wireless network to meet the FAA reporting requirements. That way, the system can provide timely information. Many automated monitoring solutions, however, are built on single-use networks, which rely on commercial cellular services for connectivity to monitor obstruction lights. Many transmission towers are located in areas with little or no cellular communications, and those that are connected to a reliable and available network risk network congestion with higher priority traffic during occurrences when cellular networks often are congested during catastrophes such as large scale power outages, earthquakes and hurricanes.

Solving These Problems With Wireless Solutions

There are now wireless automation solutions that allow a utility to cover the hardest to reach assets and maintain a higher degree of control, reliability and high capacity with the ability to support a range of smart grid applications on one network. At the same time, the solution can reliably support FAA light monitoring and utility smart grid requirements. As transmission lines continue to evolve to meet FAA regulations, utilities should use the following components to evaluate their automation system options to address regulatory, schedule and budget realities.

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• An automated wireless solution needs to support a variety of lighting systems to completely monitor the area. It should be able to support L-810, L-864 and L-864/865 lighting systems, as well as support infrared lights used in non-FAA obstruction marking requirements, such as military or border patrol operations. The network should also be able to rapidly accommodate new light requirements and directly monitor light status (L-810) or monitor the lighting controller (L-864/865).

• Other general components should be considered, including alarms for various areas of the solution such as intrusion detection, low back-up battery and primary power system failure, so utilities can immediately be notified of a problem.

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• Automation systems should use a simple deployment with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and test mechanisms, which validate operational system status in real time during installation. The solution should have a low-power design using lighting system power (ac or solar recharged dc battery) for primary power and internal back-up battery for ongoing communication through primary power failure.

• Quality automation systems should have reliable outdoor operation in high electromagnetic fields (EMF) and electromagnetic interference (EMI) environments typical in up to 500 kilovolt (kV) transmission lines and substations, and end-to-end utility-grade reliability and security of the information network.

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By leveraging smart grid automation, utilities can maintain public safety and comply with FAA-mandated obstruction light monitoring requirements to eliminate fines and avoid liability risk, which ultimately will improve the bottom lines. The underlying wireless system and its integration into the utility business processes are critical to a successful monitoring program.


About the author: Joaquin Silva, president and CEO of On-Ramp Wireless, co-founded On-Ramp Wireless in 2008 to address the large technology gap for pervasive wide-area wireless device networking in the smart grid and utility automation markets. Prior to founding On-Ramp Wireless, Silva was co-founder, president and COO of Ostendo Technologies Inc., where he was instrumental in developing a display technology and winning several new customer and government programs.

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