Drones Join Helicopters Inspecting Power Lines in High Fire Risk Areas

In remote, often inaccessible areas, high-tech unmanned aerial vehicles are being used alongside helicopters to inspect the condition of SCE’s electrical infrastructure.
Photo Credit: Ernesto Sanchez and Roberto Lazarte

Chino, Calif.—If you combine the states of New York, Delaware and Rhode Island, then you would have an area roughly the size of Southern California Edison’s total service territory of 50,000 square miles. And all the electrical equipment throughout this area needs to be inspected regularly.

In areas designated by the state as having a high risk for wildfires, SCE has poles, transformers and lines that number about 400,000. To inspect this equipment for any needed repairs, the utility uses foot patrol crews, trucks and helicopters. And now you can add drones to this list of tools.

“We are trying to mobilize every asset we have to get power back on quickly and safely. And that includes drones,” said Tom Guntrip, SCE director of Transportation Services, who noted that drones can be deployed locally, especially in rural and mountainous areas. “Drones have to be part of our arsenal of tools.”

In 2015, SCE bought its first drone. Now, it has 20 drones with high-tech capabilities, including infrared, that help capture detailed images of infrastructure often in remote, hard-to-reach locations. There are about 15 FAA-licensed and SCE-trained drone operators at the company and that number is increasing. The utility also uses contractors.

An image taken from a drone of an SCE power pole.
An image taken from a drone of an SCE power pole.

The drones were originally brought on to enhance the utility’s equipment inspection capabilities. That original intent has remained the same with added focus on those areas with a high risk for wildfires. Drones are also being piloted for possible use during Public Safety Power Shutoffs to safely and quickly inspect lines so power can be safely restored to customers.

All SCE drone operators are required to follow SCE’s stringent confidentiality policies and procedures. SCE drone operators comply with all FAA regulations, including not flying near or in an active wildfire unless special authorization has been obtained from authorities in the interest of the public.

“When we first got the drones, it was like a moon landing. No one here had done it before, but we had to get it right the first time,” said Craig Stenberg, SCE Air Operations Remote Sensing manager and a former Navy combat air crew member. “Our goal is to enhance the inspection procedure and drones are an efficient means to access difficult-to-reach infrastructure.”

Helicopters are often deployed for equipment inspections over a large geographic area. Drones are quieter and can be used in sensitive areas where helicopters may create undue disturbance. Drones can also get more detailed images and videos since they are able to fly in closer to the infrastructure.

When we first got the drones, it was like a moon landing. No one here had done it before, but we had to get it right the first time. Our goal is to enhance the inspection procedure and drones are an efficient means to access difficult-to-reach infrastructure.”

Craig Stenberg, SCE Air Operations Remote Sensing Manager

Helicopter pilots spend years training to fly safely, but a drone operator can be trained within a matter of weeks. Linemen can also use a drone — mounting cameras on the top or bottom of the device — to help inspect equipment without having to climb a pole, making it safer.

“Drones are the future, especially the inspections part of it,” said Stenberg, noting that drones can also be used to string lines in some cases instead of a helicopter, helping to save money. “Drones can get closer to what you want to inspect making it much easier to identify which structures are being inspected.”

Drone footage is downloaded and SCE inspectors look for equipment that needs repairs. Once needed repairs are identified, crews and helicopters are scheduled for deployment. SCE’s Digital and Process Transformation group is now working to develop software that can more quickly analyze the images from the drones using Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

In addition to using drones in equipment inspections, SCE is training drone operators throughout the company, including in its environmental sciences group that helps ensure endangered animals and plants are unharmed during any utility work. 

“Drones are another tool to enable a greater understanding of our grid and with this information we can make the remediation safer and more quickly,” said Guntrip. “Drones help us look at the state of our infrastructure.”