The drones will help cut response times when power cables are put out of action

An American company has announced that it will start sending drones to inspect power lines, perhaps spelling the beginning end of the line for the cable guy.

Electricity firm Commonwealth Edison, based in Illinois, has received permission from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to use drones for inspecting equipment, another step in the pilot-less aircraft becoming a mainstream feature of modern technology.

The company had been considering the use of drones since 2011, according to the New Scientist, following a particularly bad spate of storms that knocked out service for more than 900,000 customers.

Before repair crews were able to be sent out, employees first had to drive or even sometimes walk the length of the power line several times to note the particulars of each individual problem: where it had occurred, what type of wire was used and how much transformers were affected.

This inevitably led to a longer wait before power was restored.

But now waiting times should be cut drastically as drones will fly along power lines in rural areas recording pictures and videos of damage. An infrared camera may also be added, to pinpoint hot spots on the line where failures are most likely.

The company will have to follow rules laid out for other drone operators, such as keeping the craft away from airports and within the pilot’s line of sight.

Brian Argrow, an aerospace engineer at the University of Colorado, said to the New Scientist: “I think it’s a long time coming. There’s a risk reduction in using unmanned aerial systems to do the jobs rather than having humans and helicopters flying too close to the power lines.

The Finnish start-up Sharper Shape has created a drone with laser scanners that can potentially offer even greater possibilities.

Companies could use them to locate the best path through a forest for a new powerline, as the software creates a detailed model of the ground below that includes individual trees and an estimate of when they might topple.

San Diego Gas and Electric started to experiment with drones last year. A large number of its power lines can only be accessed by the expensive option of helicopter and it hopes to use drones for routine inspections and in the event of emergencies, like brush fires.

Amazon has recently slated the FAA for acting too slowly after it gave permission to the company to begin test flying its delivery drones outdoors last week.

Amazon said that the approval had come so late that the drone that had been approved was already obsolete and the company had already moved onto more advanced designs.