Inspection data from automated aerial systems complements PSPS programs, empowering utilities to accurately pinpoint trouble spots, mitigate risks.

Natural disasters set the stage for power companies’ strategies. Hurricanes, extensive flooding, record-high temperatures, record-setting droughts, and wildfires are redefining how power companies are managing both major weather events and major weather event thresholds. In the case of wildfires, while the amount may not be alarmingly different, the size of the fires and total acreage burned have grown in addition to the devastating threat to public safety. Storms as powerful as Hurricane Harvey have gone from 100-year occurrences to now emerging every 16 years.

Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) programs have been an area of focus for California utility companies in an effort to address this trend. This relatively new initiative makes determinations about when and where to cut electricity to a particular area, based on environmental factors like temperature, rainfall, and predicted windspeed. Cutting power to an area at risk of a wildfire ensures that the continuing flow of electricity doesn’t start or contribute to a disaster until the threat has passed. While the very premise of PSPS goes against the central mission of power companies (that is, utilities are meant to provide reliable electricity to customers and this program aims to cut that power when necessary), it has become a necessary tradeoff in order for utilities to adapt to a rapidly changing environment and mitigate the impact of devastating wildfires. It is for this reason that we will see an increase in the number of PSPS responses as well as in the number of utility companies embracing similar preventive measures.

But there are limits to relying solely on PSPS as it is not the end-all, be-all solution to both mitigating wildfire risks and managing the aftermath. Other, more tech-driven solutions — like conducting environmental inspections via automated aerial systems such as drones — provide new ways for expanding the scope of what utility companies can do to curtail the threat of major weather events to their customers.

The Limits of PSPS

In the event of a potential wildfire, California utilities will execute PSPS to shut down power in a perceived threat area. That threat assessment is determined by environmental conditions, weather forecasting, satellite data, and so forth to assess the likelihood of a wildfire and where and when it could potentially occur. But, a complication of this tradeoff is that the PSPS program itself can also create safety risks:

  • Power is a commodity that emergency systems, first responders, and the public all rely on. Shutting it off, even with the best intentions and in the most necessary circumstances, can still produce safety concerns.
  • Additionally, the environmental concerns that triggered the need for PSPS can inadvertently lead to vegetation and other debris, damaging utility equipment and potentially remaining in contact with electrical infrastructure. When reenergized, this contact could possibly trigger a wildfire — exactly what a PSPS was intended to mitigate in the first place.

The second concern also factors in a larger issue with PSPS — it is limited as a purely preventative measure. While that is important, it naturally cannot address what needs to happen after the fire has been put out or the storm has passed. Because once the threat is over, the utility company needs to reenergize the lines to restore power. Before doing so, they must also make sure nothing has happened to the integrity of their lines or other field infrastructure — that trees haven’t fallen onto wires or poles haven’t failed in a manner resulting in downed power lines, for instance. The operators at power companies are blind to these conditions on their own. They need field presence to determine when and where it’s safe to restore power to consumers.

That knowledge gap is currently filled by deploying line workers in the air and during the day only. There is an opportunity to improve this by:

  • Automating aerial inspections using various sensors to fully capture environmental conditions and make assessments (initially with manned flights but ultimately with unmanned ones).
  • Developing infrared (IR) sensors and capabilities to conduct automated assessments beyond daylight hours.

Utilities need incisive, fast, data-driven methods for dealing with natural disasters like wildfires and how they affect their customers’ power needs — both before and after a disaster strikes. They need a strategy that can both improve the effectiveness of PSPS programs and reduce the need for PSPS altogether. Automated aerial inspections provide that new avenue for power companies to more quickly and nimbly assess post-disaster damage, expedite aftermath management, restore power to customers, and prevent inadvertent triggering of new wildfires.

Tying Up Loose Ends with Automated Aerial Inspections

Utility companies currently conduct field inspections with either line workers or helicopters to assess environmental conditions for when and where to reenergize power lines. This is, however, a fraught process for a number of reasons:

  • It can be slow and time-consuming, depending on the extent of the PSPS program and the lines deenergized.
  • It is limited to the number of qualified line workers and aircraft available.
  • Even with qualified line workers, the process is not foolproof. It’s a find-the-needle-in-the-haystack situation where missing just one needle can result in another wildfire.
  • The ability to make these visual assessments is dependent on weather conditions. If it’s too windy, it may be dangerous to fly. Additionally, flight inspections are constrained by daylight availability, so there is a limited window of hours to work within.

Conducting these field inspections via drones with high-resolution sensors addresses these limitations, providing clearer and more comprehensive inspection data for making critical PSPS decisions, like assessing environmental risks and pinpointing when and where to cut (or restore) power, all in faster and safer ways.

Drones can be deployed to monitor fire- and storm-ravaged areas for line damage, providing more up-close and objective analyses than what is visible to the human eye. Drones use machine learning algorithms to more quickly identify potential issues. These aerial inspections make life easier for field workers too, allowing them to review assets remotely with high-resolution sensors that can be deployed beyond daylight hours and still gather critical inspection information.

It’s a win-win situation all around: power companies are armed with faster and more accurate insights about their post-storm field assets to make quicker determinations for restoring power; field workers can get that work done faster — without needing to enter hazardous areas themselves — with drones; and consumers get their service restored even faster.

Ultimately, as we face an uncertain landscape where wildfire risks will only get worse, not better, in the near future, aerial inspection technology gives power companies a new edge to stay ahead of the curve. The inspection data provided by automated aerial systems complements PSPS programs, empowering utilities to quickly, accurately, and safely pinpoint trouble spots and wildfire risks, mitigate these potential dangers, manage the aftermath, and get the lights turned back on for everyone.