Sempra subsidiary is first utility to get FAA drone license

HOUSTON — A San Diego utility company say it’s the first utility in the country to get permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly a drone.

San Diego Gas & Electric, which provides electricity and natural gas to 3.4 million customers, will use a small unmanned aircraft to conduct inspections in remote areas that would otherwise be hard to access, the company said. The utility is a subsidiary of Sempra Energy.

Oil and gas companies across the globe have already started experimented with drone technology. Last year, the ConocoPhillips flew drones over Alaska’s Chukchi Sea, marking the first FAA-approved commercial operation of unmanned aircraft. Earlier this year, a BP flight in Alaska was the first FAA-approved commercial drone operation over land.

A spokesman for the utility said the FAA granted the certificate June 26, and it’s already begun test flights.

The technology will also allow the San Diego utility to gain information during emergencies such as fires and help located the cause of power outages, Dave Geier, the company’s vice president for electric transmission and system engineering, said in a statement.

“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,” Geier said.

The FAA approved the company’s use of the drones in four areas of Eastern San Diego County where there are no residences or businesses. After testing is complete, the company could then seek FAA-approval for broader use of the devices.