Fascinating technology

PG&E uses helicopter technology to analyze Bay Area power line environments

In recent weeks, residents of Vacaville may have seen helicopters hovering low around power lines.

The reason? Pacific Gas & Electric uses helicopters equipped with Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology to assess conditions around power lines to determine if vegetation needs to be reduced.

Megan McFarland, spokeswoman for PG&E, said LiDAR was “one of the most high-tech tools in our arsenal.”

“It provides an incredible level of detail and precision, and it tells us about the status and location of our equipment in relation to nearby vegetation,” she said. “It’s one of the most important things we look at, because anything that can create a wildfire risk is what we want to deal with.”

The helicopters are flown by PJ Helicopters, a family-owned third-generation helicopter company based in Red Bluff that helps PG&E monitor distribution lines.

A PJ Helicopters flight crew performs a pre-flight safety check on their Bell 407 helicopter before flying to Napa on Thursday from Nut Tree Airport in Vacaville to conduct an investigation for Pacific Gas & Electric into the surrounding conditions of the power lines to determine if vegetation needs to be cut back.
(Joel Rosenbaum/The Reporter)

“PJ Helicopters is a world leader in the fire and construction services industry,” said pilot John Meyers.

Between April and October – wildfire season – PJ Helicopters flies to power lines in different parts of the state and uses a Sharper Shape LiDAR sensor system that uses imagery to capture data on things like branches or other vegetation encroaching on power lines, equipment at risk of potential failures and faults.

Meyers said once a flight crew has finished surveying a circuit, they are given an iPad.

“We basically play ‘Pac-Man’ all day and connect all the dots, then move on to the next circuit when we’re done,” he said.

Meyers said the technology gets the job done faster than with a drone.

“We can fly hundreds of miles a day against a drone that can fly very little,” he said.

Between April and the end of October, PJ Helicopters flies daily between approximately 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. to carry out the work. He conducted statewide surveys in areas such as Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, San Jose, Fresno and Pismo Beach.

The helicopter has been spending a lot of time in Vacaville lately, taking off from Nut Tree Airport. On Monday, he could be seen flying over the Gates Canyon area which was devastated by the LNU Lightning Complex fires in 2020. On Thursday, he left Nut Tree Airport to survey the lines in Napa.

A Bell 407 helicopter equipped with a special detection and ranging (LiDAR) camera piloted by PJ Helicopters of Red Bluff takes off Thursday from Nut Tree Airport in Vacaville to continue its PG&E contract study of the vegetation grown around the lines high voltage in areas that are in known high fire zones.  (Joel Rosenbaum/The Reporter)
A Bell 407 helicopter equipped with a special detection and ranging (LiDAR) camera piloted by PJ Helicopters of Red Bluff takes off Thursday from Nut Tree Airport in Vacaville to continue its PG&E contract study of the vegetation grown around the lines high voltage in areas that are in known high fire zones.
(Joel Rosenbaum/The Reporter)

McFarland said the data is brought back to PG&E’s field for analysis of captured visuals.

“That’s when we make decisions about what might need to be cut or what possibly infringes on our permissions,” she said.

Meyers loves that the investigation allows him and his team to travel to different regions and take on new challenges.

“Every day is interesting,” he says.

McFarland said it was a mechanism to keep communities safe.

“It’s an important tool we have in fighting wildfires because we get such precise data,” she said.