A 360-Degree View of Safety

SCE drone inspectors provide critical information to enhance electric grid reliability and keep the public safe.
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Stories : Safety

A 360-Degree View of Safety

SCE drone inspectors provide critical information to enhance electric grid reliability and keep the public safe.
Contributors
Photo Credit: Roberto Lazarte and Casey Wian
Video Credit: Roberto Lazarte
 

Before heading out to begin his daily inspections of Southern California Edison’s equipment in a remote rural area of Riverside County, Ramon Bargas conducts a safety briefing with two colleagues.

“There are mountain lions in the area, packs of stray dogs and rattlesnakes,” he said. He warns to be on the lookout for drivers speeding through the steep and windy roads – some paved, many not — and to be mindful of “No Trespassing” signs.

Bargas, who has been with SCE for 14 years, is a senior electrical system inspector and licensed drone pilot. His job is to fly a drone over power poles and other assets in high fire risk areas to check for anything that might pose a safety or reliability risk.

Ramon Bargas, an SCE senior electrical inspector, launches his drone to inspect equipment in rural Riverside County.
Ramon Bargas, an SCE senior electrical inspector, launches his drone to inspect equipment in rural Riverside County. PHOTO CREDIT: Casey Wian

“The work that we do is very crucial to public safety, to maintain continuity of the grid, provide the best service possible to our customers and minimize power outages,” Bargas said. “The drone is a tool to help us do our job safely.”

Today, that job involves a 360-degree inspection of power poles, transformers and switching equipment, looking for potential problems such as frayed electrical wires or damage to specialized equipment designed to prevent wildfires and keep power flowing.

“We get to see a birds-eye view of our infrastructure and our assets that we don’t typically get to see from the ground, said Kathy Hidalgo, SCE director of inspections. “We now have a holistic view of the health of our assets.”

Drones also improve the efficiency of the inspection process. The drone’s camera takes still images from a variety of pre-determined angles so inspectors can determine if there’s an anomaly that requires repair.

Drones provide a 360-degree view of electrical equipment that’s impossible to achieve with ground inspections.
Drones provide a 360-degree view of electrical equipment that’s impossible to achieve with ground inspections. PHOTO CREDIT: Roberto Lazarte

“Data and images are used across the board, including by our asset strategy and planning group, our field crews for the remediation work that needs to be done, and our IT folks who are looking at the multiple images for our artificial intelligence and machine learning models,” Hidalgo said.

While conducting inspections, Bargas needs to attend to his own safety, and not just because of wildlife. Property owners can be suspicious of utility workers with drones and sometimes downright furious. Last year, not far from location today, Bargas was inspecting a pole that was not easily accessible without a drone when he heard gunshots.

“I’m hearing these shots while my drone is in the air. I look up from my screen and see a gentleman pointing a gun at my drone,” Bargas recalls. “I tried to let him know I was from Southern California Edison. He said if my drone stays up there, he’s going to go get a shotgun to make sure he doesn’t miss.”

Bargas reported the incident to his supervisors, and SCE security followed up with law enforcement.

Drones must remain 20 feet from energized electrical equipment.
Drones must remain 20 feet from energized electrical equipment. PHOTO CREDIT: Roberto Lazarte and Casey Wian

“Shooting a drone out of the sky is illegal, even when the drone is flying over private property,” said Samuel Gonzalez, SCE senior manager of Security.

Bargas wants the public to know that drone inspectors pose no threat to property owners and are essential to maintaining reliable customer service.

“We’re not there to spy on anybody or take pictures of people doing things or make enemies,” he said. SCE’s standard practice is to land a drone flying near a customer’s property when people are visible outside to protect their privacy.

“Citizens have an expectation of privacy and we do not intend to invade a person’s privacy. SCE deploys drones and helicopters strictly for the purpose of inspecting and evaluating equipment in the field,” said Kristi Gardner, SCE principal manager of program oversight, development and planning. “The focus of these operations is our own electrical assets, structures and right of ways to support our assets. SCE pilots and vendor pilots comply with all applicable laws and regulations.”