PG&E looks to drones to improve service

Drones may help keep the lights on and the stove fires burning. PG&E is testing drones for monitoring electricity infrastructure and is working with NASA to use the unmanned aerial vehicles to spot gas leaks.

The utility has two testing programs underway, to address issues in both gas and electricity services.

A recent drone flight over a hydroelectric plant in the Sierra Nevada mountains outside Fresno marked PG&E’s foray into drone testing. For humans to inspect facilities such as the Balch Powerhouse in the Sierras, fall-protection equipment is required for the risky work that requires “a significant investment in training and protective equipment,” according to PG&E.

The utility hopes to use drones to assess power lines and other equipment in remote areas. “We see significant possibilities . . . for increasing reliability of our service and response time to outages,” PG&E executive Pat Hogan said in a press release.

On the gas side, the utility is working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other researchers to test a drone-borne NASA laser-based sensor to detect gas leaks from the air. The sensor, according to PG&E, uses technology similar to that used to find life on Mars and is 1,000 times more sensitive than most technology on the market.

“The ability to deploy and aerial methane-detection tool over long distances and in remote areas could signal a major turning point in future gas-leak detection capabilities for PG&E, and the larger utility industry as a whole,” said PG&E executive Jesus Soto.

The utility said it was also looking ahead to using drones for storm and disaster response. “Obstacles such as downed trees or icy roads make it difficult for crews to assess damage, which in turn hinders response and restoration time,” the company said. “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.”

Photo: A small remote-controlled drone (AFP Photo/Robert MacPherson) 


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  • It’s a perfectly reasonable use for drones.

    You can get really good thermal cameras for them now, which makes these kind of surveys relatively simple. They’re quick to deploy, easy to control (relatively) and much cheaper than hiring a helicopter for the day…

    The drone market in general has massive potential for surveying almost anything. There are already loads of good applications built for agricultural drones.

    Who knows where they’ll take things next!

    Believe it or not, the Queen actually mentioned UAVs in her speech last week –

  • SF Bay Power Line Worker

    As a PG and E employee, thanks for letting us know… Too bad our company didn’t …

  • david

    Very informative Thanks