How drones could prevent utility equipment from starting forest fires

The 2018 Camp Fire forest fires resulted in over $16 billion in damage, claimed 85 lives, and was recorded as the 13th deadliest wildfire in California’s state history.

According to state investigators, the fire started when a hook on a Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) electrical transmission tower (Tower 27/222) broke during heavy winds, dropping a wire which threw sparks into the dry brush below.

PG&E has received a lot of flack for failing to take basic precautions which would have likely prevented this catastrophe.

What do you mean?

For starters, the Caribou-Palermo transmission line – of which Tower 27/222 was a part – was originally built in 1921, meaning it was around 97 years old in 2018.

Despite owning the line since 1930, PG&E had not replaced much of the original hardware. State regulators claim that PG&E’s inspection and maintenance plan for the transmission line prior to the fire was “ineffective,” and a report by the Butte County District Attorney called PG&E’s reliance on outdated and under-inspected equipment “negligent and reckless.”

An obvious way for PG&E to protect its credibility, moving forward, would be to make a notable improvement in its inspection protocol.

I’m guessing this snapshot is going to have something to do with drone inspections.

That’s right.

But, let’s do an overview of what’s being inspected first.

PG&E operates over 5,000 miles of high-voltage wires in Califirnia’s drought-prone forests. To make matters worse, the Wall Street Journal analyzed PG&E’s 20 “worst performing lines,” and found that 16 of them are in high-risk fire areas.

The combination of failure-prone transmission lines in fire-prone areas is thought to be a significant and unacceptable hazard, and a recipe for a repeat of 2018.

Part of the solution is more frequent inspections, but many lines and towers are hard to reach, making those inspections and resulting repairs difficult. That’s where drones come in.

PG&E is upgrading its system inspections program by using drones, computer vision, and machine learning, to better detect problems before another fire is started. 

How do drone inspection solutions work?

In a nutshell, drones are deployed to gather data such as thermal imaging, LiDAR, and sometimes multispectral imaging, for critical infrastructure, such as distribution poles and transmission towers.

This generates terabytes and terabytes of data.

Computer vision and machine learning are then trained to classify this data and identify subtle deviations from the norm, such as the beginnings of corrosion or other damage to components.

This helps utility companies prioritize which components to replace or keep a close eye on before things get out of hand, as they did in the case of the Camp Fire.

How far along is PG&E’s program?

PG&E’s program — which has been in development since at least 2016 — is currently being used to predict how transmission equipment will handle high-wind events, to help operations staff prioritize maintenance work, and to help PG&E leadership decide whether to shut off power to a high-risk area during severe weather conditions.

Although high fire-risk areas are a top priority, the plan is to expand to lower risk areas and inspect over 15,000 miles of electrical lines in 2020.

What are the main benefits of a drone inspection program like this?

There are many.

First, these types of programs can relieve inspectors and electrical workers of routine tasks. For instance, during the inspection process, a program like the one described can alleviate the need to scan hundreds of images of each structure in a high-fire-risk area to find a right-of-way or access path for maintenance and repair workers.

This allows for more focus to be put on identifying and mitigating fire risks. 

Second, once the computer vision and machine learning are adequately trained, these programs can reduce human error and speed up response time when issues are found. 

Finally, by reducing the need for manned inspections, drone inspection programs can reduce safety hazards for the inspection crews of utilities companies like PG&E. (For more information on how drones improve infrastructure inspections, see our article, “Three Reasons Drones Improve Infrastructure Inspections.”)

Will this program prevent future forest fires?

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) estimates that about 10 percent of the state’s wildfires are triggered by power lines.

A 10% reduction in wildfires would be a notable accomplishment for California, especially given the large scale of recent incidents, such as the Camp Fire.

(It’s also worth noting that federal investigators are looking into whether the more recent Bobcat Fire could have been caused by another utility company’s faulty equipment.)

The good news is that PG&E’s case seems to be inspiring other utility companies to develop similar drone programs. At the end of 2019, San Diego Gas & Electric started using drones and computer vision to inspect its distribution equipment in high-risk areas.

And similarly, in March of 2020, Southern California Edison announced that it was piloting a program that uses drones to inspect distribution and transmission lines in high-risk fire areas.

But unfortunately, better inspections by themselves will not eliminate the risk of utility-driven forest fires.

California has 25,526 miles of higher voltage transmission lines, and 239,557 miles of distribution lines, two-thirds of which are overhead, according to the CPUC. 

Since it’s so hard to maintain and inspect overhead lines – especially old ones –  many have suggested that the only truly effective way to prevent future forest fires is to move the lines underground, where harsh weather conditions are less likely to cause sparks.

But, according to PG&E’s website — Facts about Undergrounding Power Lines — it costs about $3 million per mile to convert underground electric distribution lines from overhead lines, and it costs $800,000 to build a mile of new overhead line.

So, until residents of California are willing to experience a massive hike in electricity costs, it’s likely that drones will be critical to minimizing the risks brought about by California’s aging electrical infrastructure.

Miriam Hinthorn - Contributing Author

Miriam Hinthorn - Contributing Author

Miriam Hinthorn is an experienced management professional who is currently pursuing her master’s in Data, Economics, and Development Policy at MIT while serving as principal consultant at Consult92.

Miriam developed a love for UAS technology when she served as operations manager at Consortiq. Today, having completed over 30 successful projects in 10 countries, she loves solving a wide variety of logistical, technical, and cultural challenges for her clients so that they can focus on what care about most.

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3 Reasons Drones Improve Infrastructure Inspections

The global economy depends on the vast network of infrastructure which connects goods and services in the marketplace to customers.

Roads, railways, bridges, power plants, wind turbines, solar farms, and more are vital to meeting our energy needs and fueling commerce.

The cost to maintain these critical structures can be staggering. For example, in the United States, the government spends well over $400 billion annually on infrastructure alone. A significant portion of that spend goes toward inspection, maintenance, and repairing existing structures.

Even more alarming than the cost is the age and health of these structures.

Like many countries, the United States is facing a crisis concerning rapidly degrading infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the U.S. will need to spend $4.5 trillion by 2025 to fix it.

Traditional methods of infrastructure inspection rely heavily on placing people in harm’s way to complete the task.

Structures such as wind turbines and bridges place people at dangerous heights and around moving parts that can cause injury or death. Personnel exposed to working at heights often have some of the highest fatality rates for work-related deaths.

Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology has advanced far enough to replace human involvement in many of these precarious situations, while often producing better results. Here’s how.

The Benefits of Drone Inspections

Safety

 

Improved safety is perhaps the most significant benefit of using drones for inspections.

When conducting an assessment, inspectors use various tools to detect stresses in materials, surface temperatures, and other factors to determine the physical and functional condition of a given structure.

Recent: Should You Use Drone as a Service or Start an In-House UAV Program?

Before industries began using drones, most inspection methods put people in harm’s way. In some cases, such as the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan, areas that required thorough, periodic examinations were far too dangerous for workers.

Drones ably move into dangerous areas, including radioactive environments, and collect the information needed without ever posing a risk to humans

 

Speed

 

Typical infrastructure inspections may take weeks or even months to plan and schedule, and they may require shutdowns and delays.

For example, if a bridge requires an inspection for evidence of cracks in concrete supports, you’ll need additional equipment, such as hydraulic lifts, to complete the task. And, you’ll likely need to close off that bridge for the inspection team’s safety, thus causing traffic delays.

Once you schedule an inspection team, rent heavy equipment, and work with government officials to get clearances, you’re already be behind schedule and over budget. Of course, that’s all in addition to the aforementioned safety concerns.

The use of drones eliminates all of those issues. With a certified remote pilot and the right UAS technology, you’ll mitigate those risks and quickly get the job done on your terms.

Advanced Technology and Data Collection

 

Inspections at most facilities, such as solar farms, require more than just visual observation.

Photographs in the visible spectrum might identify some issues, but completely miss others. Technologies, such as Thermal imaging, LiDAR, and sometimes multispectral imaging, provide powerful information. For example, you’ll immediately know when a solar cell is no longer functioning properly.

Many drones swap out payloads or have built-in dual-camera systems (i.e. Parrot Anafi Thermal). These features allow inspectors to collect numerous data points for further analysis in just a single drone flight.

There’s also the quality of UAV optics and other hardware, which allows for more precise inspection of hard to reach locations.

Optics have grown from small cameras producing grainy images to dynamic image-collecting devices with extensive zoom capabilities. Standard UAV cameras capture images 20MP or larger, and can take video in 4K or better.

Hardware improvements on GPS receivers, visual sensors, and infrared sensors have made obstacle-avoidance systems extraordinarily reliable, even indoors. Battery improvements are also advancing, as some drones are capable of hour-plus flight durations on a single charge.

Combined, the precision optics and reliable hardware provide inspectors with more precise, detailed data.

Drone inspection thermal imaging

Bringing It All Together

When it comes to infrastructure inspections, UAV technology has provided innovation across numerous industries.

With increased safety, enhanced data collection, higher quality data, and greater versatility, you’ll get more done safely, and with less disruption.

Of course, drone inspections require more than just buying the equipment and taking to the skies. You’ll need certified remote pilots and industry-specific training, plus operation and safety guidelines.

With Consortiq, we take care of the hard work for you. We’ll help you create a course of action based on your needs, from operational support and use cases, to ongoing training programs. If you’re not interested in starting your own drone program, we’ll conduct the inspections for you, when you need them.

Save time, limit risk, and get the information you need with Consortiq!

For a risk-free quote, or to schedule a consultation with a team member, just complete the form below, or call us at 1-855-203-8825 (U.S. office) | +44 (0)208 0450 322 (UK office).

David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly, is an award-winning photographer/writer and licensed (FAA) Commercial sUAS pilot. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, David is a former Marine Corps officer with a BS in Oceanography and has earned his MBA from the University of Redlands. David has worked for Fortune 100 companies and has a background in aerospace, construction, military/defense, real estate, and technology.

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Construction and the Benefits of Drones

In recent years, UAV technology has been one of the standout tools aiding the construction industry.

 
According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the construction industry is one of the largest in the global economy.

Approximately $10 trillion is spent annually on construction sector goods and services. With such an enormous amount of money dedicated each year, roughly 13% of the world’s GDP, experts are always looking for ways to increase productivity.

The most impactful solutions, which promise greater efficiencies, originate from innovation and technology. In recent years, UAV technology has been one of the standout tools aiding the construction industry. In many cases, drones are not only more efficient at a given task, but also more cost-effective. 

For those reasons, they present many stakeholders with win-win solutions.

Within the construction industry, some typical applications of drones include: Mapping and surveying, inspections, safety and risk mitigation, equipment monitoring, and project management. 

Stakeholders at every level — from executives to site superintendents — find that the data collected from drones is both timely and useful. The ability to quickly launch a drone and gain a real-time assessment of an active construction site is a game-changer. 

Beneficial reasons to use drones in surveying and mapping

Surveying and mapping are two of the most widely used drone applications in construction. 

Traditionally, site surveys and mapping have required the services of a survey team. Once scheduled, these teams will take accurate measurements using tools such as 3D scanners and theodolites.  

Data collection

The data collected is analyzed and used to generate site maps, as well as a variety of other products. Some examples include stockpile volumetric measurements, site layout plans, and recording the progress of onsite work.

While the data gained from a ground survey team is accurate, there are some drawbacks to the method. In many cases, the teams are independent contractors that require advance scheduling. Oftentimes, work must be suspended in the survey area for safety reasons, and it takes time to analyze data and generate products.

Maintenance

Drones are easily maintained onsite with a minimal impact on existing operations. A small space for charging batteries and storing drones is all that is required.  

Training

Training pilots is easily accomplished, especially with the assistance of a company specializing in enterprise clients. 

Enterprises focused trainers typically offer courses in not only the basics of flying but also in mission-specific tasks such as mapping and data collection.

 

Recent: Drones in Oil & Gas – Safe, Fast, Effective

 

Accuracy

Advances in positioning sensors, and the quality of camera payloads, have increased the accuracy of drone surveys over the last few years. 

In fact, platforms such as DJI’s M210 RTK industrial drone can achieve a relative vertical accuracy of approximately 2 cm and a relative horizontal accuracy of 1.20 cm. 

Speed

Speed is another advantage. 

By some estimates, drones can complete a survey three-to-five times faster than ground survey personnel. There are numerous software platforms, such as Pix4D, that automate the process, allowing the pilot to focus solely on flying safely.

Accessibility

A final advantage of using UAVs for this task is accessibility. 

Drones can reach areas in steep terrain or dangerous environments with ease. 

For example, assume your construction project requires an initial survey of a cell tower in a remote section of the national forest.  Getting a survey team into the area with all their gear would likely be more challenging than using a drone. 

The terrain can also significantly restrict the ability of the team to use equipment, such as a theodolite. The aerial survey of a UAV is only minimally affected by these challenges.

Bringing It All Together

Drones have the real and proven potential to positively impact your bottom line. With a relatively low initial investment, stakeholders up and down the chain will see the benefit of adding drones to their construction operations.  

Whether you are looking for cost-saving initiatives, risk mitigation, increased situational awareness, improved equipment monitoring, or a real-time solution to project management, you should consider adding drones into your arsenal.

Want to know which drone platform works best for your project? Need help with gathering unmanned data or policy development? We’re here to help! 

Complete the form below to get started!

David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly, is an award-winning photographer/writer and licensed (FAA) Commercial sUAS pilot. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, David is a former Marine Corps officer with a BS in Oceanography and has earned his MBA from the University of Redlands. David has worked for Fortune 100 companies and has a background in aerospace, construction, military/defense, real estate, and technology.

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