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PG&E and other major California utilities using drones and AI to reduce risk of sparking wildfires

PG&E and other major California utilities using drones and AI to reduce risk of sparking wildfires

As California faces one of its worst wildfire seasons to date, PG&E and other major California utilities are starting to use drones and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to reduce the risk of sparking wildfires because of faulty equipment

PG&E and other major California utilities using drones and AI to reduce risk of sparking wildfires

The WSJ reports that PG&E and other major California utilities are using drones and AI in an effort to reduce the risk that damaged gear could start wildfires as happened with the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 84 people.

With the use of drones and AI, the utility companies are trying to spot potential equipment issues, such as a worn C-hook, before failure.

“We firmly believe that over time, the entire industry—world-wide, globally—will eventually leverage some sort of remote technology to inspect electrical equipment,” said Mike Glass, director of data and analytics in PG&E’s IT organization. “And we believe there will be increasing levels of automation and artificial intelligence inside of that process over time.”

Unmanned aircraft can fly close to the transmission towers and distribution poles without putting anybody’s life in danger, and take high-resolution photos of the equipment and the surrounding areas. Computer vision can be trained to identify what a certain piece of equipment is, what it is supposed to look like, and if something is not in order. The images can be analyzed with Artificial Intelligence to identify subtle changes such as the onset of corrosion.

PG&E and other California utilities are not using the drones to help fight the wildfires. The use of unmanned equipment is geared toward preventative measures.

PG&E and other major California utilities using drones and AI to reduce risk of sparking wildfires

PG&E has been using drones to monitor distribution poles and transmission towers in remote and hard-to-access areas for some time now. Last year the company added computer vision to enhance the drone inspections.

The utility company aims to relive its inspectors of routine tasks such as marking images for the maintenance and repair workers.

“We want the inspectors to focus their entire attention on looking for ignition risks,” said Kunal Datta, a PG&E product manager.

The drone images are now analyzed with the help of computer vision and the new process brings down the average inspection time per structure from 80 to 52 minutes.

Other major California utility companies have started to use drones, computer vision, and AI as well. Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas & Electric uses these new technologies toward the end of last year to inspect equipment in high-risk areas. Edison International’s Southern California Edison is testing new technologies that include drones to inspect distribution and transmission lines in high-risk fire areas as well.

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Photo: PG&E

Haye Kesteloo

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