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Southern California Utility Deploys Inspection Drones

The plan is intended to protect against and mitigate fire ignitions that may be associated with Southern California Edison utility infrastructure. The goal is to conduct aerial inspections with little to no disruption to residents.

An inspection drone in flight.
Drones like this one are becoming increasingly prevalent in facility inspections.
Shutterstock/Dmitry Kalinovsky
(TNS) — As part of its Wildfire Mitigation Plan, Southern California Edison will use drones over parts of the High Desert to inspect power equipment.

SCE spokesman David Song told the Daily Press on Monday that over the next few months, some residents west of Interstate 15 may see SCE drone aircraft inspecting power poles and equipment as part of the mitigation plan.

"The inspection work will be conducted mostly in the areas of Adelanto, Phelan, Piñon Hills and Wrightwood," Song said. "SkySkopes and BEAD are the contractors who will do the work."

During the inspections, contractors on the ground will maneuver and monitor the drones, which will launch from and land on a mobile platform, Song said.

The plan is intended to protect against and mitigate fire ignitions that may be associated with utility infrastructure. The company's goal is to conduct aerial inspections with little to no disruption to residents, Song said.

In 2015, SCE purchased its first drone and now has 20with high-tech capabilities that can capture detailed images of infrastructure — often in remote, hard-to-reach locations, SCE said.

There are nearly 15 FAA-licensed and SCE-trained drone operators at the company and that number is increasing. The company also uses contractors for inspections.

"During the COVID-19 outbreak, we're performing a balancing act by keeping our employees safe in the field while servicing our customers and taking precautionary measures to mitigate the risk of fire," Song said.

Part of SCE's health and safety protocol during the COVID-19 pandemic includes employees wearing face coverings and "working safely together but safely apart," Song said.

The company also encourages employees to travel to job sites in their own vehicles and crews are scheduled to work in groups to lessen the spread of infection.

He added that the company continues to exceed long-standing industry practices to further fortify the electric system against the increasing threat of wildfires due to extreme weather conditions heightened by climate change, increased development in the wildland-urban interface, and significant build-up of fuel on state and federal forest lands.

This includes enhanced inspections on all SCE overhead power lines in high fire risk areas to identify and remedy potential issues outside of standard inspection cycles, Song said.

After the inspection, drone footage is downloaded and SCE inspectors look for equipment that needs repairs, SCE said.

"We're reaching out ... (to) inform the public about our drones work," Song said. "Because of COVID-19, there's a lot of people at home and they may wonder why there's a drone flying over their neighborhood."

In August, dozens of residents called the Daily Press after they witnessed an unmarked helicopter, used by SCE for inspections, flying low over several neighborhoods in Apple Valley.

Song said the aircraft belonged to Coastal Helicopters, which was hired for "enhanced aerial inspection work" that includes capturing photos of utility lines, transformers and other power equipment.

Drones are quieter than helicopters and can be used in sensitive areas where helicopters may create an undue disturbance. Drones can also get more detailed images and videos since they can fly in closer to the infrastructure, SCE said.

©2020 Daily Press, Victorville, Calif. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.