First Drone Tests Approved for Southern California Utility

A California utility has been cleared to begin testing drones that may someday be used to survey remote parts of its electricity network for wildfires and power failures.

Sempra Energy is the first utility to win U.S. Federal Aviation Administration approval for a pilot drone project, the San Diego-based company said today in a statement. Companies from Inc. to railroads are seeking to deploy the small, unmanned aircraft originally developed and used by the military.

Sempra’s San Diego Gas & Electric wants to see if drones can help it respond more quickly to natural disasters and monitor hard-to-access areas. The quadcopter craft features four propellers radiating from a central hub, weighs less than a pound and is small enough to hold in your hand. It has a camera than can target equipment and relay live images.

Utilities view the technology as a way to speed up their response to power line damage from severe storms in places where roads are blocked or helicopters are not allowed. Other industries, such as Internet service providers, railroad operators and oil companies, see drones helping with services ranging from door-to-door delivery to monitoring bridges and oil fields.

Drone manufacturers also have received FAA approval to perform test flights.

The decision allows for testing within a confined area. It stops short of allowing Sempra to use drones to inspect power lines and perform other commercial operations. The FAA has only granted permission for commercial drone operations in the sparsely populated Arctic region.