SDG&E Becomes First Utility to Test Drones

It’s a bird!  It’s a plane!  It’s a…drone!

San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) became the first utility in the country to gain approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to test-drive drones.  The utility has been granted a Special Airworthiness Certificate that allows it to operate drones for research, testing, and training flights in Eastern San Diego County.  Test areas are located in zones measuring 2.5 miles long by a half mile wide, and include no businesses or residences.

Image courtesy of Forbes

Image courtesy of Forbes

“The unmanned aircraft system provides us with another tool in our electric and gas operations tool chest,” David Geier, SDG&E’s vice president of electric transmission and system engineering, told Forbes.  He goes on to say,

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.

SDG&E plans to use the drones to monitor and inspect its 26,000 miles of transmission lines, which have over 450,000 trees surrounding them.  This will make it easier to observe areas that are inaccessible to helicopters.  Due to their small size, inexpensive equipment, low personnel costs, reduced noise, and small environmental impact, drones are considered to be superior to helicopters.

When comparing costs, helicopters are no competition.  According to a local news station, two drones equipped with cameras cost a total of $6,000.  Leasing a helicopter would require $2,000 per hour.

The utility’s drones are 16 inches in diameter and weigh less than one pound.  They also include a camera that is roughly the size of a pencil’s width, which will be used to send live footage to a mobile control room.  The strategic positioning of four propellers lets the drones move vertically, forward, and backward, allowing them to reach the top of a power line in seconds.

It may take several years to gain approval to use these drones in real world situations, but if this technology proves to be effective and valuable, it could change the energy industry forever.

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