PG&E to start using drones for longer flights across California

Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the San Francisco Bay Area-based natural gas and electricity company, is set to start using drones for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) drone flights across the entire state of California.

The company recently obtained a BVLOS waiver under the Federal Aviation Administration’s Part 107, allowing it to conduct such flights.

PG&E is a huge player in the business of natural gas and electric utilities, servicing approximately 16 million customers, and roughly 5 million households across 70,000 square miles. Its customers are concentrated in the northern two-thirds of California.

PG&E said it intends to use the BVLOS waiver to fly large sections of its critical infrastructure within high fire-threat districts across the entire state. For its drone operations, PG&E is working with Skyfire Consulting, which is a public safety and critical infrastructure UAS consulting group.

A Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) electrical substation in San Francisco, California.

Skyfire has experience working with California wildfire authorities, and other aspects of forest management including prevention, wildfire response, environmental cleanup and reforestation, such as through its work with DroneSeed, a company that uses drones to rapidly plant seeds in forests.

Drones aside, PG&E has been plagued by controversy. The company received unwanted, widespread media attention in the late 2010s, when investigations by Cal Fire primarily blamed PG&E for two separate and incredibly devastating wildfires in 2017 and 2018 California. As part of that, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2019.

Though, this is not PG&E’s first time working with drones — simply its first time using drones over longer distances. At one point, even PG&E’s own drone use became controversial after a court questioned whether a drone operated by a PG&E employee or contractor interfered with the Dixie Fire. In that instance, a water-dropping helicopter operated by Cal Fire was forced to pause operations for roughly 45 minutes because the pilot claimed it saw an unidentified drone flying over the blaze.

Less controversially, PG&E has already been using helicopters and drones to inspect transmission equipment, with documented usage dating back to 2016.

The energy sector is a huge area for the drone industry. In fact, according to a 2022 report from Drone Industry Insights, the energy industry is the largest of all industries using drones, comprising 14% of all drone applications. Energy companies primarily use drones to inspect equipment including pipelines, wind turbines and oil storage tanks. And not only is it huge, but it’s growing. Global energy flights increased 123% and users increased 86% between 2018 and 2019, according to DroneDeploy data

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