San Diego utility gets FAA nod to test drones

The FAA recently granted San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) a Special Airworthiness Certificate for a small Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), allowing the utility to research, test and train flight crews on the UAS in a sparsely populated airspace in Eastern San Diego County. SDG&E is the first utility in the nation to be granted FAA approval for this technology.

“The unmanned aircraft system provides us with another tool in our electric and gas operations tool chest,” said Dave Geier, SDG&E’s vice president of electric transmission and system engineering. “This versatile technology would allow us to improve our response to emergency situations such as fires, as well as complete aerial inspections in remote areas that are otherwise difficult to access, and locate the cause of power outages faster. By using these devices, we hope to enhance the reliability of the energy network and promote public safety for the benefit of the entire region.”

The approved program aims to investigate how SDG&E can integrate small UASs into day-to-day operations to improve inspections of electric and gas lines, particularly in areas that are off-limits to helicopters or difficult to access by road or other means. Measuring 16 inches in diameter and weighing less than a pound, these small devices use a camera to inspect utility equipment and relay live images back to the controller. The UAS can access infrastructure that is difficult to reach for utility crews and alert them if repairs are needed.

The UAS can be used in several situations and provide other benefits, in addition to locating the cause of power outages, conducting inspections of power lines, and accessing remote areas. The UASs improve situational awareness during emergencies through monitoring of fires; and achieve cost savings, noise reductions and environmental protection by avoiding the use of helicopters and other heavy machinery, according to officials with the utility company.

The first step of the pilot program is to validate this new technology through rigorous testing strictly within the select airspace.

The FAA and SDG&E have developed a testing protocol with the public’s privacy and safety foremost in mind. The four approved test areas in Eastern San Diego County are approximately 2.5 miles long and half a mile wide containing no residences or businesses.

SDG&E also received approval for a small, 100 yard diameter airspace for training purposes at a utility training facility in San Diego. As always, SDG&E is steadfastly dedicated to ensuring privacy and will only use the vehicles, as prescribed by the FAA, to research the reliability and safety purposes of the program.

Once the technology is tested and if it proves effective, SDG&E may then seek FAA approval to use the UASs more broadly in the field for inspections. SDG&E inspects more than 26,000 miles of transmission and distribution power lines for safety and compliance purposes and to make sure the grid is running smoothly and effectively, and UASs may prove to be a powerful new ally in the effort to keep equipment functioning securely, safely and reliably, officials noted.

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