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PG&E Uses Drones to Check Infrastructure Affected by Northern California Wildfires

Oct. 25, 2017
The first-of-their-kind drone flights are the result of a 'One PG&E' collaboration

Marking a first for the company, PG&E is flying drones over wildfire-damaged areas of Northern California to assess the condition of critical infrastructure that cannot be easily accessed by company personnel and ground-based equipment.

The first-of-their-kind drone flights are the result of a “One PG&E” collaboration among Aviation Services, IT Infrastructure and Operations, Cybersecurity and Enterprise Records and Information Management.

“These drones represent an evolving technology that will only provide greater value and enhanced safety into the future,” said Ned Biehl, PG&E director of aviation services. “As we continue to support first responders and other agencies involved with this emergency response, this technology will enable a safer restoration process.  This project is testament to our Mission, Vision and Culture, fostering innovation and collaboration to serve our customers.”

During the wildfire response, four teams have operated multiple morning flights over the fire zones north of the company’s Santa Rosa base camp and near the Napa base camp, capturing videos and still images of PG&E equipment.

The team of four includes a pilot and an observer or “co-pilot” from the drone vendor, a subject matter expert, who reviews the impacted facilities, and a safety officer, who ensures that the public is safe during the drone’s flight. The information collected is shared with the base camps in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake Counties and in the Emergency Operations Center in San Francisco to help in PG&E’s efforts to restore service to its customers and rebuild its infrastructure.

How Drones Became a Reality

PG&E has been using drones for nearly two years in single-case applications, such as substation mapping. These efforts helped inform the company’s strategy and policy for unmanned aircraft system implementation in other situations, such as wildfire response

Deploying drones to conduct inspection flights required PG&E Aviation Services to work closely with the Federal Aviation Administration and CAL FIRE to secure necessary approvals. Prior to the first flights being launched, however, PG&E’s Cybersecurity team worked closely with Aviation Services and the respective lines of business to develop protocols allowing for easy tracking and identification of the data collected.

And, to ensure that the data collected was preserved in accordance with applicable regulations, the ERIM team developed criteria to meet regulatory requirements. Once the flights began,  IT Infrastructure and Operations worked with base camp technical staff on collecting and transmitting the information so that EOC personnel and our teams at the base camps could utilize this information to guide our restoration efforts.

“I am proud to be part of a team that shows up so well when it counts the most, like during an emergency. Our drones make it safer for our employees reducing risk exposure and ultimately getting the gas and lights turned on sooner.”

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