Southern California Edison employees Abraham Zamacona and Rich Espinosa stood on the side of Route 66 in San Bernardino in November, inspecting one of the many utility poles dotting the area using a small, football-sized drone to detect any damage to the equipment—an effort that SCE officials say has greatly increased the effectiveness of preventing forest fires throughout its coverage area in the four years since it was launched.
Espinosa calls drones “the Cadillac of tools to get the job done” because they can do about three times as many inspections in a day.
SCE began operating its drone program in 2019, one day after fire investigators found the company responsible for the 2018 Woolsey Fire, which destroyed 1,643 structures, killed three people and prompted the evacuation of more than 295,000 people in Los Angeles and Ventura counties
The utility company is also a defendant in another pair of lawsuits filed in Orange County, accusing SCE of causing two devastating fires—the 2020 Silverado Fire and the 2022 Coastal Fire. The lawsuits allege that faulty equipment resulting from negligent maintenance of hazardous but apparently hot and windy weather conditions led to the two wildfires. The lawsuits seek an unspecified amount of money to reimburse county agencies for costs associated with dealing with the two wildfires.
From neighborhood cul-de-sacs to wooded, hard-to-reach areas off the beaten path across Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, and Orange counties, ground crews regularly inspect more than 400,000 transmission assets in the entire coverage area of the utility company, said SCE.
Drones are also used to monitor the environmental impact around SCE’s facilities, including marking trees that need pruning, brush removal, or weed control.
San Bernardino resident Karen Manahan knew the danger of wildfires when she and her family moved to a rural area nearly 5 years ago, but the increasingly affordable housing prices left her little choice in her new family.
“You go where the rent is cheaper, and you have to face some disadvantages,” said Manahan. “In our case, we live near a lot of brush, and that was a big concern when my family moved here.
“It helps me sleep a little better when we have the occasional visit from Edison to trim our trees and even trim some of the weeds growing on our property,” he said.
Drones provide an aerial view of conditions that crews on the ground cannot see, said SCE Director of Inspections Kathy Hidalgo. Hazards that are not always easy to see from the ground include cracks in the wooden cross-arms of utility poles, weakened hardware, damaged insulators that hold the wire in place, and a missing bolt that bolted up and rotted.
“This keeps our crew from harm,” Hidalgo added. “We don’t need linemen going up high and risking injury.”
Currently, SCE has about 40 drone pilots and sometimes uses contract crews.
In early November, Espinosa took a 15-minute window to fly a drone toward a utility pole, where it took some photos. The inspection was almost canceled due to cloudy skies and rain a few miles away, but a small pocket of sunshine gave Espinosa the opening he needed.
As Espinosa flew the drone, Zamacona looked around his partner, making sure he didn’t stray too close to the road where cars were zooming by. The photos are then sent to a server.
“We use the images we collect and input them into an AI machine learning model that analyzes the images and assesses the conditions of the equipment,” Hidalgo said. Photos are also geotagged to help keep records of equipment locations.
“The AI program acts as a pair of second eyes, double-checking the images of the equipment for any damage that may have been missed by the ground crews,” he said.
There are some drawbacks to using drones.
SCE drone pilots currently cannot operate a drone if it is not in their line of sight and cannot fly it in rain or in gusts above 32 mph. SCE requested permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly the equipment beyond the pilot’s line of sight and in wet, windy weather conditions.
Drones are also not a way to replace crews on the ground, Hidalgo said, with crews playing an important role in making repairs.
In cases where a drone is not available or the terrain prevents ground crews from easy access, helicopter crews are brought in to take the shots from the sky.
Hidalgo said crews have reduced the likelihood of fires involving SCE equipment by about 85% since 2018 through a concerted effort to use drones as well as grid hardening efforts, including replacing more than 5,200 miles of its 9,700-mile circuit with covered conductors since 2017. .
By the end of the year, SCE is expected to physically harden more than 75% of its distribution miles in fire-hazard areas with coated electrical wire that reduces the likelihood of a line of electricity that arcs or sparks when it comes into contact with something like an object. tree branch or metal balloon.
So far this year, the company has conducted about 28,000 inspections of more than 400,000 transmission assets of the utility company, including poles, transformers, and power lines.
“And we still have a lot of inspections left before the end of the year,” Hidalgo said.