San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) is testing unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to enhance the safety and reliability of its electric and gas service.
The Federal Aviation Administration has authorized PG&E to use drones to assist with inspections of electric and gas infrastructure. In turn, the utility is conducting two separate testing programs to explore the feasibility of using the technology to monitor electric infrastructure in hard-to-reach areas and detect methane leaks across its 70,000-square-mile service area.
PG&E recently conducted its first drone test flight at the Balch Powerhouse, a hydroelectric facility located in the high Sierra Mountains outside Fresno, Calif. Currently, due to the height and steep angle of the terrain, employees are required to use fall-restraint equipment as they visually inspect equipment – a hazardous task that requires significant investment in training and protective equipment, says PG&E.
“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,” explains Pat Hogan, senior vice president of electric transmission and distribution for 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, 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, explains the utility. The first flight was performed at UC Merced on Feb. 24; the next series of tests will take place in June.
Though PG&E’s drone program is still undergoing testing, the utility says it is encouraged by the technology’s potential benefits. In the future, PG&E also predicts that drones could play a key role in storm and disaster response.
PG&E, a subsidiary of PG&E Corp., has more than 20,000 employees and delivers energy to nearly 16 million people in northern and central California.