BREA, Calif. – Southern California Edison is taking a top-down approach to help check its equipment ahead of wildfire season in the area. The utility is using drones to help check equipment in high-fire risk areas.
Drone pilot Sophia Bailey uses a tiny screen to help her fly an unmanned aircraft system.
“As long as you’re taking it slow and steady, it's good," she said.
She’s good at flying drones because she’s had practice. Bailey first got into flying drones because of her interest in cinematography. She had done some real estate videos and other video projects, but she was ready for a change.
She says she, “knew that I wanted to do something in addition to cinematography that made a difference.”
She found her purpose with a company called Skyscopes.
“We [Skycopes] are contracted through Southern California Edison. And our mission is to help prevent the spread of wildfires,” Bailey explained.
They use drones to help inspect the grid.
“We’re looking at the insulators, the cotter pins to see if any of the hardware is hanging out,” said Bailey.
They also use drones to inspect the power pole itself, “to see if it’s crooked, if it’s warped by the sun,” Bailey explained.
There are all damages that could potentially ignite a wildfire.
SCE said its equipment was involved with the start of at least a portion of the Thomas Fire in 2017.
Alyssa Grigoryan is SCE’s Aerial Inspection Team Manager. She says there are some things you could miss from just doing inspections from the ground, which the utility also does as part of its effort to check its equipment.
“Things like woodpecker damage, for example, is a really good example of what you can see from looking top down using drones and helicopters,” Grigoryan said.
Grigoryan says aerial tools help the utility fulfill one of SCE’s goals-to prevent wildfires.
“Ultimately it’s for public safety,” she said.
Last year, SCE agreed to pay cities, counties, and special districts $360 million to settle lawsuits related to wildfires including the 2018 Woolsey fire in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. The utility did not admit wrongdoing.
A redacted Ventura County Fire Department investigation report had said SCE equipment caused the Woolsey fire. The current aerial effort is all about avoiding another fire and finding any potential issues with equipment.
“If we find a damaged pole, we replace it within 24 hours,” said Grigoryan.
The utility’s service area is about 50,000 square miles, roughly a third of California. So the annual inspection takes time. Time, UAS pilot Bailey says she doesn’t mind spending to hopefully make a difference.
“I think it’s a privilege to be able to potentially stop the spread of wildfires,” she said.
Bailey says it’s a job she looks forward to every day.
The drones currently cover about 25 percent of SCE’s aerial checks, with helicopters doing the rest of the checks. But the utility says it wants drones to play a significantly larger role in aerial inspections.