UAVs to Help with San Diego County Water District Inspections

The Otay Water District has designs on using two camera-equipped drones to inspect and survey the topography of its facilities, a move that will take personnel out of potentially dangerous situations.

by David Hernandez, The San Diego Union-Tribune / January 17, 2019
Drones like this one are becoming increasingly prevalent in facility inspections. Shutterstock/Dmitry Kalinovsky

(TNS) — When it’s time to inspect facilities, such as water tanks, or survey the topography of its properties, the Otay Water District now turns to technology it has embraced in the past year: drones.

The water agency, which serves more than 225,000 customers in eastern and southern San Diego County, uses two camera-equipped drones to get a bird’s-eye view of its vast and mostly remote sites and facilities, which include 40 potable water reservoirs, more than 20 pump stations and a treatment plant.

Among other water agencies in the region and across the state, the Otay Water District is ahead of the curve in adopting the technology, said Adolfo Segura, the agency’s administrative services chief. He said he anticipates that other water districts will follow suit; the Lakeside Water District already has shown interest.

“Drones will be part of a tool set for the future,” Segura said of his expectations for the technology in the water industry. “It’s going to be like any mobile technology.”

He said drones are efficient at surveying sites and facilities while keeping employees out of potentially dangerous scenarios.

For example, drones are flown over water tanks to observe conditions, eliminating the need for water operators to climb ladders to the top of the tanks, which are generally at least 25 feet tall.

The agency also uses the drones to monitor the progress of the ongoing expansion of the Roll Reservoir in the Otay Mesa area.

With more infrastructure projects anticipated, Segura said the agency expects to use the drones in the future to capture images to create 2-D and 3-D models of a site to plan for construction.

It’s not just facilities that the agency inspects with drones. The technology is also used to monitor the vegetation and wildlife on the agency-owned land. The main goals are to protect the fauna, as required by state law, and to assess the risk of a wildfire.

The long-range hope is that the images and videos taken using the drones will help the agency analyze over time the impacts of climate change on the vegetation and facilities, which could be susceptible to damage caused by weather conditions, Segura said. He added the state has called on water districts to keep tabs on the effects of climate change.

He said it’s common practice for photos captured by the cameras mounted on the drones to be used in quarterly reports shared with the agency’s governing board.

The agency has other potential future uses in mind. One example: using drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras to check for cracks in pipes and water leaks, with the thermal imaging detecting signs such as moisture.

So far, the public hasn’t had major concerns about the drones, Segura said. While the use of drones by public agencies such as police departments draw some concerns about privacy, Segura said he believes that’s not the case with the water agency because the drones are flown over district-owned land that is remote, not above communities.

Following a weeks-long pilot program, the agency began to use drones in late 2017. While two employees are trained to fly the remote-controlled devices in compliance with the regulations set by the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency plans to train water operators who inspect facilities and test water quality on a regular basis.

The Otay Water District “will continue to leverage (the technology) wherever we can, according to regulations,” Segura said.

Segura said he is aware of one other water agency that uses drones: The San Diego County Water Authority. Mike Lee, the agency’s public affairs supervisor, said the San Diego County Water Authority uses drones to survey its facilities and land, particularly in areas with rugged terrain that are difficult to access.

It’s not the first time the Otay Water District embraces innovative technology. In 2004, the agency equipped vehicles with automated meter readers, which allow the devices to “read” a one-way radio signal from residential water meters up to a half-mile away, eliminating the need to go onto customers’ properties to take water-use readings. The agency began to upgrade the so-called AMRs in 2017 and expects to replace all by 2023.

“It’s an agency heavily invested in technology … but for good reason,” Segura said of the Otay Water District.

The agency serves customers within 125 square miles that includes Chula Vista, Otay Mesa, Jamul, Spring Valley, Rancho San Diego and unincorporated communities near El Cajon and La Mesa.

©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune. >Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.