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SDG&E now allowed to fly aerial drones in the east county

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sdgedrones1What’s that teeny little helicopter flying outside your window? Just SDG&E, inspecting their transmission lines and other parts of their system. Actually, you would have to live pretty far out in the woods to see the drones right now. The local utility received the green light from the FAA to use the newest aerial drone technology to help patrol their resources. For now, the permit is only in the eastern portion of San Diego County, where the lines and equipment are isolated and difficult to reach and visually monitor by more conventional means.

San Diego Gas & Electric is thus the only public utility anywhere in the nation that is permitted to utilize remote-controlled aircraft in its routine surveillance of power lines and devices. The electric company has 26,000 miles of power lines, and must keep a careful eye on them, along with the nearly half a million trees the lines are strung above and around.sdgedrones3

Currently, to inspect many of the transmission lines that go through heavily forested areas, personnel must climb the trees to get to the height of the power wires. Large trucks and ladders are employed, and the workers must be thoroughly trained in both the technical aspects of inspecting the equipment and the techniques of getting to and working up in the trees.

When the job can be done from the air, helicopter are leased, and pilots hired, to survey from above. This is a limited form of monitoring since the aircraft can not get as close to the cables as either an individual on a ladder, or a drone. In addition, the noise and pollution from the use of helicopters, coupled with the cost, (around $2,000 per hour), make the unmanned birds a much better option.

sdgedrones2The particular drones SDG&E has been permitted to use are 16 inches across. Each weighs in at not quite one pound. There are four spinning blades to give the craft lift, hovering capability and forward and reverse thrust. From the ground, the drone can reach the tops of the trees in mere seconds.

The complete package, with the controlling computer and two drones complete with pencil-sized cameras entails an investment of approximately $6000, a vast savings on the use of helicopters or climbing technicians. The tiny cameras broadcast their feed in real-time to the mobile control room screen.

For now, the FAA has given approval for the utility to deploy the drones in only four 1.5 square mile areas of the McCain Valley, near Hwy 54 and the CAL FIRE San Diego Unit Headquarters. If they prove as useful and successful as SDG&E hopes, further permission for more extensive portions of the county will be requested.sdgedrones5

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