For Immediate Release: November 7, 2019

SMUD patrolling power lines by air

Helicopter and airplane flights use high-tech imaging to identify fire threats and enhance reliability.

SMUD contractors will be flying over power lines in Sacramento and El Dorado Counties using helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft to identify trees and brush that encroach, or may potentially encroach, SMUD’s infrastructure. The flights were conducted over the remaining days of October and the beginning of November. 

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SMUD performs aerial inspections via airplane and helicopter flights one or more times annually. Safety is SMUD’s guiding principle and power reliability is a core value set by the elected SMUD Board of Directors. To meet these standards, SMUD conducts extensive and routine inspections of its electrical lines and equipment. In addition to aerial patrols, these inspections are done at the ground level as well.

SMUD used a fixed-wing airplane to patrol SMUD infrastructure in eastern and southeastern Sacramento County. SMUD is using a helicopter to patrol SMUD’s transmission line corridors in Sacramento and El Dorado Counties.

In this aerial patrolling effort, SMUD is conducting remote sensing acquisition using lasers and high-resolution photography to identify encroachments and keep trees away from power lines and poles. By coupling what’s called Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology with what’s known as orthoimagery, SMUD identifies trees proven to be historically associated with causing power outages and strategically pinpoints trees using sophisticated data analysis.

This digital technology identifies vegetative growth and even dead and dying trees that pose a threat to public safety and power system reliability. The inspections are valuable not only from a preventive maintenance perspective, but also from the perspective of tree and brush management, ensuring vegetation isn’t encroaching on SMUD’s lines, which could cause electrical faults and outages.

LiDAR is an aerial surveying method used to make high-resolution maps. It measures distance to a target by illuminating it with an FAA-approved pulsed laser light and measuring the reflected pulse—like SONAR but with light instead of sound— producing digital 3D pictures of the target. For SMUD, the collected LiDAR data, which is engineering grade, is processed using computer analytics to develop a 3D model of trees near SMUD’s towers, poles, lines and other assets as well as associated geographic features.

These flights are being conducted to execute work associated with SMUD’s remote sensing contractor Quantum Spatial and are conducted at an airplane altitude of about 3,600 feet and a helicopter altitude of about 500 feet.

SMUD carries out communication efforts to advise and notify residential and commercial customers located near SMUD facilities where equipment inspection is scheduled.

SMUD works diligently year-round to prune and remove trees and other vegetative growth within its easements and adjacent to its lines to reduce potential conflicts. SMUD works on about 70,000 trees near power lines each year. Every area in the SMUD service territory with overhead lines on poles is assessed at least every 36 months. Some trees grow faster than expected, so SMUD uses technology and historical data to address these types of situations. Any identified situation that can potentially cause an outage or safety issue is prioritized and addressed to ensure public safety and reliability.

SMUD’s comprehensive approach to vegetation management using industry best practices has delivered life- and property-saving results, helping firefighters control the King Fire in 2014, which impacted SMUD’s transmission lines near Camino. A key turning point in the battle to control the wildfire came as SMUD’s already-managed transmission line rights-of-way provided critical fire breaks for firefighters to stop the fire’s spread. CAL FIRE officials publicly acknowledged SMUD’s vegetation management programs as critical factors in protecting the foothill communities of Camino, Pollock Pines and Apple Hill from the catastrophic King Fire.

For more information about SMUD and its vegetation management programs, visit


Image of SMUD patrolling power lines by air Image of SMUD patrolling power lines by air
SMUD is using sophisticated digital technology to gather images and data about trees and other vegetation under and near its power lines. LiDAR technology and orthoimagery equipment mounted under the helicopter enables SMUD to identify potential fire threats and enhance its system reliability.