Unmanned Aircraft System Pilot Project

SDG&E recently identified new technology that can be used to further the safety and reliability of the gas and electric system in a cost responsible and environmentally friendly manner.

On June 26, SDG&E was granted a Special Airworthiness Certificate by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to use InstantEye, a small Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) manufactured by Physical Science Inc. for the purpose of Research, Development and flight crew training.  SDG&E is the first utility in the nation to receive clearance from the FAA to test this technology.

On March 26th, the FAA has also granted San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) a Section 333 approval for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), allowing the utility to conduct aerial inspections of its electric and gas facilities, including emergency response damage assessments throughout its service territory.  Section 333 approval is the next step in utilizing this technology to provide safe and reliable service.

Key topics

  • As part of our commitment to delivering safe and reliable electric and gas service, SDG&E is leveraging new technology to safely inspect power lines and gas pipelines.  One such technology is small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), which could allow SDG&E to inspect power lines and gas lines in environments that are off-limits to helicopters or difficult to access by road or other means. 
  • SDG&E is the first utility in the nation to be granted FAA approval for this technology.
  • The UAS can be used in several situations and provide key benefits, including:
    • Locate the cause of power outages
    • Inspect power and gas lines
    • Accessing infrastructure in remote areas that are difficult to access by ground crews or helicopters
    • Improve situational awareness during emergencies through monitoring of fires
    • Achieve cost savings, noise reductions and environmental protection by avoiding the use of helicopters and other heavy machinery.
  • SDG&E is in the research and development phase, validating that the UAS technology could be an innovative and cost-efficient opportunity for SDG&E to enhance the safety and reliability of the region’s energy network.  No homes or residences are near the test area.  The UAS will not be flown outside this airspace during the testing phase.  This air space will allow the utility to test fly the technology to better understand its uses and benefits. 

More information

Frequently asked questions

  • What is the cost of the program?

    The overall cost of the program is yet to be determined.  The cost of the program will depend on the results of the pilot period and the determination of what technology will work best for SDG&E’s goal of a cost-efficient option for SDG&E to continue to provide safe and reliable service.  The UAS package of two vehicles and control panel costs approximately $6,000.

  • What are the customer benefits?

    There are many benefits to the UAS program, including:

    • Improved ability for SDG&E to complete aerial inspections of power lines in remote areas. Currently, linemen have to climb transmission towers to complete an inspection in these remote areas. 
    • Conduct gas and electric inspections in areas difficult to access by helicopters or ground crews, thus enhancing reliability
    • Respond to power outages in remote areas quicker.  This could help to limit the duration of power outages by allowing crews to complete inspections and troubleshoot areas of concern quicker.
    • Improved situational awareness for ground crews and system operators, especially during emergency situations such as fires.
    • Limit noise impacts.  The devices are significantly quieter than the helicopters currently used to patrol lines.
    • The UAS will allow for crews to improve the time it takes for a pole or gas line inspections to be completed, allowing a greater number of inspections to occur in a given timeframe.
    • The program could also result in a cost saving, as each system costs approximately $6,000.
    • Devices could be utilized during adverse weather conditions when helicopters are grounded due to inclement weather.
  • Where and how often will SDG&E be using the UAS?

    FAA granted approval for SDG&E to test these vehicles in limited airspace near the sparsely-populated McCain Valley in Eastern San Diego County.  SDG&E also received approval for a small, 100 yard diameter airspace for training purposes at a utility training facility in San Diego.  The UAS will not be flown over any residential homes during the pilot phase.  This is Bureau of Land Management land and SDG&E has transmission towers in the area that can be used during the research and test inspections.  Our flight area is mostly contained within the SDG&E right-of-way for these facilities (Sunrise Powerlink).  We have flown the vehicles and testing has begun.   

  • Who will make sure SDG&E is only using the device as approved?

    The FAA will have oversight of SDG&E’s use of the UAS.  The FAA and SDG&E have worked together for the past year and a half and have developed a rigorous set of safety and privacy guidelines.  We have conducted extensive inspections to make sure we are following all requirements.  The rigorous safety guidelines are the same as for any commercial aircraft.  SDG&E uses registered pilots to fly the vehicle as well as a registered pilot observer.  We will only fly one vehicle at a time.  SDG&E will adhere to these guidelines with the goal of ensuring the safety and privacy of the community. 

  • How big is the device?

    The Instant Eye weighs less than one pound and is about 16 inches in diameter.

  • What are the plans for the future growth of the program? Will this take the place of jobs?

    In the future, the UAS will be an additional tool for every gas or electric inspector, which will allow them to work more efficiently and safely.

  • How will images be relayed back to SDG&E?

    All images will be viewed in real time at the Ground Control Station (GCS) and can be stored for future analysis. 

  • Are there environmental benefits compared to having a helicopter complete these inspections?

    While helicopters are and will continue to be an asset in ensuring the safety of our power infrastructure, the UAS will have less environmental impacts. The UAS is significantly quieter than a helicopter and has no emissions.

  • How does SDGE inspect their power lines now?

    Line inspections are very important to ensuring the integrity of our power system which minimizes or eliminates the risk of power line ignited wildfires. SDG&E personnel monitor the electric system 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They monitor the system for anomalies on the system, such as outages, debris contact, or equipment failure, and dispatch crews to investigate and make repairs.

    SDG&E power lines are inspected visually via helicopter, vehicle and foot patrol.  SDG&E also uses new technology for overhead power line inspections, including the use of helicopter mounted infrared cameras, electrical discharge cameras, and LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging that provides a 3-dimensional view).  SDG&E has also used the Kinetrics LineVue robotic inspection device for the past several years to inspect the integrity of our overhead wires.  It provides visual imagery as well as an x-ray image of the conductor core. 

    SDG&E has an aggressive corrective maintenance program that identifies equipment that might be problematic and replace or repair it as needed. Additionally, the utility maintains a strategic vegetation management program that helps us track and schedule pruning of more than 450,000 trees near overhead power lines in our service territory.

    All of this work helps SDG&E provide its customers with safe and reliable electric service.

  • How many miles of power lines are there in San Diego County?

    SDG&E inspects and maintains more than 26,000 miles of transmission and distribution lines.