SDG&E project manager Dallas Cormier holds one of the unmanned aircraft. Photo courtesy SDG&E

San Diego Gas & Electric announced Friday that it is the first utility in America to receive Federal Administration Approval to test the use of small, unmanned aircraft to monitor electric and gas lines .

The FAA granted a Special Airworthiness Certificate allowing the utility to research, test and train flight crews on the unmanned aircraft system, or UAS, in a sparsely populated airspace in east San Diego County.

The FAA certificate for SDG&E is significant because the agency has approved only very limited commercial use of unmanned aircraft as it works to develop comprehensive regulations by Sept. 30, 2015.

“The unmanned aircraft system provides us with another tool in our electric and gas operations tool chest,” said Dave Geier, SDG&E’s vice president of electric transmission and system engineering. “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.”

Measuring 16 inches in diameter and weighing less than a pound, these small devices use a camera to inspect utility equipment and relay live images back to the controller. The UAS can examine infrastructure in areas that are off-limits to helicopters or difficult to access by road or other means.

Once the technology is tested, and if it proves effective, SDG&E may then seek FAA approval to use the aircraft more broadly in the field for inspections. SDG&E inspects more than 26,000 miles of transmission and distribution power lines for safety and compliance purposes and to make sure the grid is running smoothly and effectively.

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.