Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas and Electric Co. (SDG&E) combination utility on Friday became the nation’s first utility to gain Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification for potential future use of unmanned aircraft, or drones, in safety and maintenance programs for natural gas pipeline and electric transmission line systems.

FAA has provided SDG&E with a special airworthiness certificate to research, test and train operators on the unmanned aircraft system (UAS) in sparsely populated areas of eastern San Diego County. The Sempra utility said it was the first in the nation to gain this nod from the FAA.

The areas of testing and training are outlined in four approved areas of 2.5 miles long and a half-mile in wide, in addition to a small 100-yard diameter airspace for training purposes at SDG&E’s San Diego training facility.

“Once the technology is tested, and if it proves effective, SDG&E may then seek FAA approval to use the UASs more broadly in the field for inspections,” a utility spokesperson said. SDG&E inspects tens of thousands of miles of distribution and transmission pipelines and power lines, and the drones “may prove to be a powerful new ally in the effort to keep equipment functioning securely, safely and reliably.”

The first goal of SDG&E’s pilot program is to validate the new technology through “rigorous testing” within the selected FAA-approved airspace. The utility said it has worked with FAA to develop a testing protocol that protects the public’s privacy and safety.

SDG&E eventually would like to integrate the small UAS aircraft into day-to-day operations that will enhance the effectiveness of its gas and electric line inspections, particularly in areas that are off-limits to helicopters or difficult to access by road or other means.

In addition to the monitoring and maintenance, the 16-inch diameter drones weighing less than a pound could be used in other situations encountered by the utility, such as power outages, fires and other emergencies. They can help SDG&E achieve cost-savings, noise reductions and environmental protection by avoiding the use of helicopters and other heavy machinery, the utility said.

“The unmanned aircraft system provides us with another tool in our electric and gas operations tool chest,” said Dave Geier, SDG&E vice president for electric transmission and system engineering. “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.”

BP plc’s North Slope Alaska operations were recently cleared by federal regulators to use an a UAS for aerial surveys of infrastructure and roads. It was the first time a UAS was authorized for commercial operation over land (see Daily GPI, June 12).