Xcel Energy has started using drones at the Prairie Island nuclear plant.

The company said Thursday it flew a drone-conducted exterior inspection for the first time at Prairie Island this summer. On Tuesday, Xcel had a similar inspection at the Monticello plant.

"Xcel Energy is committed to using new technology that improves safety and reduces costs for customers, and operating drones to complete inspections delivers those benefits," said Kent Larson, executive vice president and group president for operations, Xcel Energy. "With the ability to provide real-time, high-resolution images, the drones are providing better quality data and enhancing safety."

During inspections at Prairie Island in July, a small unmanned aircraft helped in assessing the exterior of the two reactor buildings. The work was completed in two days, provided high-quality data and reduced the cost of the surveys.

Typically the inspections require a crane and approximately a week of work. Eliminating the crane kept the crew on the ground for the majority of the inspection, improving safety, according to Xcel.

Xcel Energy realized similar safety and cost benefits when crews used a drone to inspect a cooling tower at the Monticello plant on Tuesday.

"We are striving for new ways to improve our plant operations and drone technology is helping us achieve superior levels of safety and drive down costs," said Tim O'Connor, chief nuclear officer, Xcel Energy.

Xcel has been using drones to inspect wind turbines, power lines, natural gas lines and electric substations since 2015. The company has partnered with the Federal Aviation Administration to advance operational and safety requirements for unmanned aircraft in the utility industry nationwide.

Recently, Xcel Energy announced it is the first utility in the nation to use drones beyond the line of site of the operator for ongoing power line inspections. These drone flights are currently taking place in Colorado and next year the company will operate drones remotely to inspect power lines in ten states where it maintains electric infrastructure.