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PG&E Launches Drone Squadron to Assess Northern California Wildfire Damage

With its fire-related operations under investigation by state regulators, San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) has turned loose a squadron of drones to conduct aerial surveys and gather information on the condition of its infrastructure in the midst of the worst series of wildfires ever in Northern California.

The small, remotely controlled planes are being deployed in areas that are not easily accessible for utility personnel and ground-based equipment, according to PG&E officials, who are calling the drone use a first for fire damage assessment.

The drone flights are part of PG&E's collaboration among several service providers: Aviation Services, IT Infrastructure and Operations, Cybersecurity and Enterprise Records, and Information Management.

Operating from utility bases in and around the hardest hit areas in Santa Rosa and Napa, four teams have operated multiple morning flights over the fire zones during the wildfire response. They have captured videos and still images of the combination utility's equipment.

Each team includes a pilot, an observer/co-pilot from the drone vendor, an equipment assessment expert, and a safety officer to ensure public safety.

Information collected is shared with the base camps in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties, along with the Emergency Operations Center in San Francisco, to help in PG&E’s efforts to restore service to its customers and rebuild its infrastructure, a PG&E spokesperson said.

PG&E has been deploying drones during the past two years that have been limited to single-case applications, such as substation mapping, as a way to form a policy for the use of unmanned aircraft in expanded applications, including wildfire responses.

"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. The technology allows the utility to support first responders and ensure a safer restoration process, he said.

The utility maintains an aviation service unit that has worked closely with the Federal Aviation Administration and California's CAL FIRE to obtain needed approvals for the drone operations. A PG&E cybersecurity team also worked with the utility aviation unit to allow for protections on tracking and identification of data collected.

Once flights began, the third-party service providers worked with PG&E teams at each of the utility base camps to put the data collected into restoration efforts.

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