The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has authorized Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) to use unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to aid in the inspection of electric and gas infrastructures. The goal of utilizing drones is to enhance the safety and reliability of PG&E’s electric and gas services and improve the safety of its employees.
Based in San Francisco, PG&E is a subsidiary of PG&E Corporation and is one of the largest combined natural gas and electric utilities in the United States, delivering energy to approximately 16 million people in both Northern and Central California.
PG&E is currently exploring the feasibility of using UAS to control and monitor electric infrastructure in isolated areas as well as to detect methane leaks across their 70,000 square mile service area. PG&E is committed to safe drone usage and will follow all FAA requirements, including flying the UAS within the visual line of sight of its human operator.
While PG&E’s UAS program is still in the early stages of testing, the results have been overwhelmingly positive. PG&E’s first flight test at the Balch Powerhouse, a hydroelectric facility located high up in the Sierra Mountains, proved successful in accomplishing inspections without risking employee safety. Due to the terrain’s steep heights and drastic angles, employees are required to undergo specialized training and use fall-restraint equipment to effectively mitigate the hazards posed by the job.
“These tests are helping PG&E demonstrate that drones can easily fly over remote or hard-to-reach terrain that is often inaccessible on foot, and send back imagery showing the condition of electric lines and equipment,” said Pat Hogan, Senior Vice President of Electric Transmission and Distribution at PG&E. “We see significant possibilities not just for employee and public safety, but for increasing reliability of our service and response time to outages. We will continue to explore the benefits of adding safety drones to our set of tools for inspecting utility infrastructure.”
PG&E has also teamed up with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the University of California, Pipeline Research International, and Merced’s Mechatronic Embedded Systems, and Automation Lab to test the compatibility of NASA’s Open Path Laser Spectrometer sensor on UAS. The Open Path Laser Spectrometer is a small methane sensor developed by JPL and is 1,000 times more sensitive than the technology currently available on the market. The next set of tests are scheduled for June.
“The strategic investments we’re making in new technologies and innovative tools such as drones are part of our ongoing efforts to enhance safety and reliability of our utility infrastructure. The ability to deploy an 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 Jesus Soto, senior vice president, Gas Operations, PG&E.
PG&E is striving towards a future where UAS play a vital role in providing timely and effective storm and disaster response. UAS are not hindered by the same obstacles that ground crews are, such as felled trees or slippery roads. UAS can also be used to capture high-resolution, real time imagery, which speeds up damage assessments and allows crews to bring along the correct tools for the job at hand.