A Wildfires Retrospective: How Drones Can Help Prevent Disaster and Improve Recovery Efforts

On November 8, the Camp Fire -- what would become the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history to date -- broke out. It would take more than two weeks for firefighters to fully contain the fire, which destroyed over 153,000 acres and nearly 19,000 structures. The wildfire cost an estimated $19 billion for homeowners, insurers and the state. The biggest cost was the 85 lives lost.

In this instance, a multitude of conditions created the perfect storm. In the aftermath, we’re left to examine the details and to ask how we can better prevent and respond to disasters of such magnitude. Today, drones can play a critical role in three key areas when it comes to disaster prevention and recovery.

Disaster Prevention

After the fire was contained, investigations revealed that damaged power lines and other equipment, including a high-voltage tower, were likely to blame. Miles away, another fallen power pole was also found. Now, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) faces lawsuits from the impacted families, who allege inadequate maintenance of power equipment.

Utility companies like PG&E are responsible for maintaining massive amounts of towers and equipment. Ongoing tower and equipment inspections are traditionally highly-manual, time-consuming, and resource intensive tasks, and are often dangerous for the worker conducting them. But despite these challenges, timely and accurate inspections are essential.

With drones, utility companies like PG&E can conduct regular inspections more quickly than ever before. For example, utilities companies often have multiple groups inspecting the same section of lines for different purposes and different data points. Now, with the ability to give the right experts real-time visibility and control of the drone from anywhere in the world, a single drone inspection can provide all of the needed visibility and data for multiple working groups at once, from vegetation management and maintenance inspectors to engineers and project managers. With one single team of techs in the field, work moves much more quickly, risk to personnel is greatly reduced, and companies can more quickly identify and address potential issues before they become disasters. What’s more, the inspection data captured by the drone can be streamed and uploaded directly to enterprise asset management systems, with historical data providing crews with analytics needed to perform prescriptive maintenance activities on grid infrastructure.

Fire Response & Search and Rescue

For over two weeks, firefighters worked to contain the Camp Fire, salvaging buildings and saving lives wherever possible.

Traditionally, visibility into disaster situations is often limited by a number of factors, from inaccessible terrain to budget constraints that preclude the use of high-dollar solutions like helicopters. As a result, first responders are often left to enter into dangerous situations with very little information, blind to the dangers that await them.

Now, first responders can use drones to gain a better full aerial visibility of the situation, regardless of terrain or other circumstances, and at a fraction of the cost of traditional tools. With improved visibility, command center teams can better understand resource needs and more quickly dispatch teams where the needs or greatest or that require immediate attention.  What’s more, with the ability to view the drone’s live stream in real-time while en route to the scene, first responders can better prepare for the situation they’re about to enter, helping them find survivors faster and better ensuring their own safety.

Disaster Relief

With more than 19,000 structures damaged by the Camp Fire, thousands of families are left piecing their lives back together. As evidenced by other recent disasters like Hurricane Harvey in Texas, the recovery process can take months or even years. Insurance companies must work through thousands of claims, each typically requiring an onsite visit by an inspector to survey the damage.

Drones can help expedite the recovery process to get families impacted by natural disasters back on their feet more quickly.  With real-time aerial footage and imagery captured by drones and streamed to the cloud, FEMA inspectors and insurance companies can get faster insight into levels of damage, even before families or the inspectors are allowed to return in person. In the event that communications networks are down falling a disaster, incident commanders can access video streams from ground station vehicles utilizing local WiFi networks, enhancing safety and providing situational awareness to on-the-ground teams, even when operations must be conducted offline.

It goes without saying that everyone wishes disasters like these would never occur. While sometimes unavoidable, drones are helping to address the controllable factors -- improving actions taken to limit potential causes, and providing a critical resource for minimizing impact. For utility companies, first responders and even insurance firms, drones offer a cost-efficient and effective tool for disaster prevention, preparedness and response.