SAN DIEGO - San Diego Gas and Electric has become the first utility in the nation to get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to test unmanned aircraft to check transmission lines.
The unmanned aircraft system SDG&E is using measures 16 inches in diameter and weighs less than a pound. The utility is currently experimenting with it to check rural power lines and patrol transmission towers in the rural east San Diego County.
"Our transmission towers … we often have to lease helicopters to patrol those lines. This can do that without the noise, without the emissions and also with cost savings," said Hanan Eisenman, who is with SDG&E.
The full system, including control panel and two of the aircraft, costs about $6,000. The camera captures footage in real-time so crews on the ground get a live feed.
SDG&E is the first utility in the nation to be granted FAA approval for this technology, allowing them to research, test and train flight crews in a sparsely populated airspace.
10News ventured out into the rural and rugged region near SDG&E's four FAA-approved experimental test sites for its unmanned aircraft system some 70 miles east of San Diego in the McCain Valley area, where there were no homes and no businesses for as far as the eye could see.
"One of the things we emphasize is ensuring privacy, making sure that there were no homes or businesses in our flight areas," said Eisenman.
The unmanned system will also allow SDG&E to monitor winds and fire conditions in places and at times when they otherwise may not be able to fly a helicopter.
"Our helicopters are grounded when there's high winds. These can fly during high wind events. They can get up there and they can monitor the fire, make sure it's not getting too close to our lines," said Eisenman.
If the unmanned system proves successful, SDG&E will go back to the FAA in hopes of getting approval to expand the program into other parts of San Diego County.