Eyes in the Sky Working to Ensure Public Safety

To ensure public safety—not just in everyday work situations, but also during storms, wildfires and other emergencies—we supplement our field crews with eyes in the sky.

A few years ago, SDG&E became the first utility in the nation to receive clearance from the FAA to test small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) for research, development and flight crew training. We are now exploring how we can integrate our UAS with emergency services—from gas leaks to wildfires.

Since the UASs came onboard, they have provided another valuable way to manage our electric and gas operations, in addition to helicopters. The versatile technology has helped us improve inspections of electric and gas lines, particularly in areas that are off-limits to helicopters or difficult to access by other means.

What is a UAS?

An unmanned aircraft vehicle – or drone – has a ground-based operator and a system of communication between the two. The operator on the ground can get a birds-eye view of our power lines by skillfully maneuvering the UAS.

“Our UAS can show you the top of a pole without linemen having to climb or use a bucket truck. “Avoiding unnecessary risks is key to the safety of our crews,” said Hector Ubiñas, who manages our UAS program and helps us leverage this small and mighty technology to provide safe, reliable power.

The benefits of using a UAS doesn’t stop at safety.

“Using drones for smaller safety assessments can save resources, not to mention the environmental benefits,” said Ubiñas. “We can get a good look at environmentally sensitive areas without driving trucks into them and, since the UAS is battery operated, there are zero emissions.”

Additionally, their place in SDG&E’s emergency preparedness operations is expected to expand.

“We know drones will play a key role in our future response efforts, so we are working on a roadmap for how we can implement a new system over the next year,” said Ubiñas.

SDG&E’s Eyes in the Sky

The small UAS is not the only resource that Ubiñas’ pilots fly during daily operations. SDG&E has long contracted helicopters for day-to-day operations, such as setting poles and construction in hard to reach areas. But they are also used to help keep power flowing to customers, which becomes increasingly important to safety when temperatures begin to soar.

“Time is of the essence for some of our customers when power is down in the summer months,” said Ubiñas. “Helicopters can get anywhere in our service area within 25 minutes, helping us to identify faults in our lines and get power restored as quickly as possible.”

Helicopters also have a critical role in wildfire prevention. They are used in the months leading up to wildfire season to assess transmission lines and corridors across the region for potential hazards. They have become so invaluable to company operations that SDG&E is in the process of purchasing its own helicopter, estimated to be in service in 2018.

To learn more about SDG&E’s safety efforts, visit sdgenews.com.