One of the largest combined natural gas and electric utilities in the United States is considering drones to inspect its facilities. San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) is testing unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly referred to as drones, to enhance the safety and reliability of its gas and electric service. The Federal Aviation Administration has authorized PG&E to use drones to assist with infrastructure inspections.
PG&E is conducting two separate testing programs to explore the feasibility of using safety drones to monitor electric infrastructure in hard-to-reach areas and to detect methane leaks across its 70,000-square-mile service area. These aircrafts are small and controlled by human operators through remote commands. Drones are flown safely over PG&E’s electric and gas infrastructure and always within the visual line of sight of operators.
So far, test flights have yielded early safety benefits. PG&E recently conducted its first drone test flight at the Balch Powerhouse, a hydroelectric facility located in the high Sierra Mountains outside Fresno. Currently, facility assessments like at the powerhouse require employees to use fall-restraint equipment due to the height and the steep angle of the terrain as they visually inspect equipment. This is a hazardous task that requires significant investment in training and protective equipment to perform safely. Drones are able to accomplish such inspections easily and without safety risk to employees.
“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 is also working 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 to conduct testing of NASA’s Open Path Laser Spectrometer sensor on a drone. The miniature methane sensor developed by JPL is similar to the technology developed to find life on Mars and is 1,000 times more sensitive than most commercially available technology. The first flight was performed at UC Merced on Feb. 24. The next series of tests will take place in 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,” said Jesus Soto, senior vice president of gas operations at PG&E. “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.”
While PG&E’s safety drone program is still undergoing testing, the utility is encouraged by its potential benefits. Drones can supplement the company’s current abilities to access and monitor remote infrastructure and can be equipped with a wide variety of sensors to detect leaks and structural issues.
In the future, PG&E also envisions drones playing a key role in 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. 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.