Sempra Energy's Newest Tool: Drones

Sempra Energy (NYSE: SRE  ) may have found an unlikely ally in the war against power outages: drones.

Sempra announced today that the Federal Aviation Administration has granted subsidiary San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) the right to test the use of an unmanned aircraft in Eastern San Diego County. Sempra Energy Corp. is the first utility the FAA has approved for drone use, Sempra said, but if they prove to be as useful as SDG&E believes they will be, these certainly won't be the last.

"The unmanned aircraft system provides us with another tool in our electric and gas operations tool chest," said Dave Geier, SDG&E's vice president of electric transmission and system engineering, in today's press release. "This versatile technology would allow us to improve our response to emergency situations such as fires, as well as complete aerial inspections in remote areas that are otherwise difficult to access, and locate the cause of power outages faster. By using these devices, we hope to enhance the reliability of the energy network and promote public safety for the benefit of the entire region."

In addition to allowing utilities a greater ability to identify and respond to problems, the unmanned aircraft could also cut down on day-to-day expenses. With 26,000 miles of transmission and power lines, as well as various remote infrastructure, that could mean cost savings for Sempra by reducing the use of helicopters and other heavy machinery. For instance, instead of sending a helicopter out, Sempra Energy Corp. could deploy a drone weighing 1 pound and measuring 16 inches in diameter.

For now, SDG&E is still piloting the idea of pilotless aircraft. The FAA has cleared the utility for five areas to be used for "rigorous testing," Sempra said. The four approved test areas in Eastern San Diego County are approximately 2.5 miles long and half a mile wide containing no residences or businesses.

And to allay worries of privacy intrusions, Sempra also included the following statement in today's release: "As always, SDG&E is steadfastly dedicated to ensuring privacy and will only use the vehicles, as prescribed by the FAA, to research the reliability and safety purposes of the program."

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