Following Amazon’s audacious 60 Minutes drone-related segment in 2014 and the unexpected landing of an unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) on the White House lawn in 2015, drones have captured and continue to capture growing media, corporate and public attention.
That, of course, should come as no surprise, as the advantages of cheap, accurate and fast aerial surveillance are manifold.
Currently in the U.S., drones are used to enhance public safety, support agriculture, help the environment, monitor the climate and mitigate and monitor disasters, but gas and power companies are also taking a close look to see what unmanned aircraft could do for their businesses.
In the past few years, Federal Aviation Administration has granted licenses to various utility companies to operate drones for various reasons including infrastructure inspection.
Drone Regulation and Utility Companies
Drones are capable of carrying high-powered cameras, Wi-Fi and cellular linkups for real-time streaming, as well as a plethora of sensors, which make them well suited for checking miles of electrical lines or gas pipelines.
PG&E, like other utility companies, uses helicopters frequently for a variety of purposes, but the company has recently taken a closer interest into how it might integrate drones into its fold.
“When the FAA made the announcement that they were going to allow for exemptions to fly drones on property – the 333 exemptions – PG&E leadership made the decision and I got asked to be a part of the team,” said Ken McClure, manager of helicopter operations at PG&E.
PG&E received the 333 exemption, allowing the firm to start using drones as a commercial group. The company then put together a manual and contracted drones from a number of vendors also listed under that FAA exemption.
“We did, I think, two or three flights in that 2-year period with the exemption, and that was about it. And then, part 107 [of the FAA regulations] came out, the official regulation and we started just working with some of those same vendors in doing limited drone flights under those new regulations.”
Amongst other things, part 107 regulations require firms to obtain a remote pilot certificate for their drone operators.
What have drones done for you lately?
How does PG&E dabble in drones? In various ways.
The firm has conducted testing with safety drones to monitor electric infrastructure in hard-to-reach areas as well as surge tube inspections in hydroelectric plants to ensure water doesn’t get backed up to the extent it bursts out. It also has drones that can detect even tiny methane leaks, a partnership it has worked on with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the University of California, Merced’s Mechatronics Embedded Systems and Automation Lab (MESA Lab), and Pipeline Research Council International.
“All pipes leak to a certain extent, they just do,” a PG&E spokesperson said, noting that the drones with the gas detecting sensors on them can detect even small methane leaks across its 70,000-square-mile service area. The tiny methane sensor developed by JPL is similar to the technology developed by the space agency to look for life on Mars and is 1,000 times more sensitive than most commercially available technology.
PG&E is also finding uses for drones to be flown over Hydroelectric Powerhouses in the mountains, which previously required employees to suit up with fall-restraint equipment due to the height and the steep angle of the terrain if they had to visually inspect equipment. Drones can inspect the equipment more easily and with no safety risk to employees.
Showing that drones can be used to fly over and visually monitor hard-to-reach terrain, providing imagery of electric lines and equipment has huge future benefits.
“We’ve also done some building inspections, as well, some rooftops,” noted McClure.
Wild rumors about wildfire drone flights unfounded
While some media reports claimed PG&E used drones during the recent California wildfires, McClure said this was pure misinformation. “We did not use drones inside of the The Flight Restricted [areas] in response to the fires. We flew a couple of missions in our base camps, looking at our base camps,” he said, adding that once the fires were extinguished, PG&E flew some drones over areas they believed may have been the fire’s points of origin, with an investigative team using them for mapping purposes before restoration work could properly begin.
Logistics and privacy
PG&E doesn’t own its own drones, instead, it contracts specific types it needs from different service providers. “They’re all different ones. It depends on what sensor package the line of business is asking for, whether it’s just pictures or if it’s photogrammetry or infrared or lidar,” said McClure.
In terms of privacy, the firm says it always looks to local ordinances and state laws before planning or deploying any drone missions, which are always within the visual line of sight of operators..
“We’re trying to achieve more in a very rural environment. Obviously, we’re flying per the regulations, so that we’re not flying over people who are not associated with the project and we’re trying to keep as much out of the public eye as possible,” said McClure, adding that PG&E teams always ensure camera angles stay low, so data from cars driving through the area isn’t inadvertently collected.
Flights of fancy or the future of power inspection?
McClure said that while the use of drones at the company is still in its infancy, PG&E is committed to scoping the opportunity out, having just brought on a new program manager to work on various lines of business that will develop into a more formal drone program in the future. This could mean drones will play more of a role in future disaster response and in conditions where environmental hazards make it difficult for crews to assess damage. Using drones to capture high-resolution imagery in real time will help speed up damage assessments and the deployment of the right resources to restore power, the company has said.
Drones may be farsighted, but PG&E’s executives are keeping their options close to their chests for now. “I’m not sure where we’ll end up as a company on our drone use. That is uncharted territory that remains to be seen,” summarized McClure.