Fire away

How drone inspection and data visualization are the key to wildfire risk prevention
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28 Oct 2020

No matter where you are based in the world, it’s hard not to notice the alarming and eerie images of the fires burning through the West Coast of the U.S. right now. According to data1 released by the National Interagency Fire Center, nearly 10 million acres have already burned in 2020. With many calling this the worst wildfire destruction in nearly 70 years, it is worrying to think that the peak fire season is still a few weeks off.

Although wildfires aren’t directly started by climate change, the unprecedently dry, hot and windy weather conditions have been exacerbated by it. Climate organizations have been vocal about the effects of global warming on wildfires for many years, causing them to last longer and become more devastating. According to a report2 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2020 will be one of the hottest years on record, with perhaps the worst to come.

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According to data3 from the Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity program wildfires are getting worse in the U.S. in particular. California, Washington and Oregon are considered to be the worst states affected by the fires, with more than five million4 acres burned there alone. The wildfire crisis has been compounded by high population density in urban areas today, which may have influenced this.

Covid-19 has, you could say, added fuel to the fire. The pandemic has only added complications to emergency response plans across the West Coast of the U.S., and the strain on fatigued first responders has hit an all time high. Firefighters not only have to contend with a record-breaking fire season, they have to do so whilst avoiding infection and quarantine.

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Shunning shutdowns

For the companies based in these states who are responsible for maintaining safe and reliable power delivery for homes and businesses, whilst mitigating any fire risk from their power transmission lines, the wildfire crisis is a monumental concern.

At Cyberhawk we have worked with many major utilities around the world over the years and we know first-hand that these companies are committed to keeping their own people and their customers safe. This is not just driven by regulatory scrutiny (which is expectedly at an all-time high), but through their corporate ethics and values.

Utilities have an obligation to protect the communities in which they serve and in doing so, some have had to turn to their last resort of power shutoffs when alerted to fire risks. However, this means leaving thousands of customers’ homes and businesses without electricity for potentially long periods – up to seven days in some cases. Leaving the most vulnerable without heat or light, especially when people are spending more time than ever at home due to the pandemic, causes even more issues. Not to mention the serious consequences of disrupting power to the already overwhelmed hospitals and other emergency services.

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Prevention is the answer

We believe prevention is the key to avoiding the disruption that blackouts bring, and above all else, maintaining safe operations. The U.S. power grid is one of the oldest in the world, with 70% of transmission lines more than 25 years old. Inspecting and maintaining these aging power grids is incredibly important when it comes to fire mitigation. A proactive approach to inspection is needed.

The Cyberhawk team of specialists based in the U.S. are no strangers to supporting critical wildfire prevention and reliability campaigns. We are working with major utilities to carry out drone inspections of towers, poles and electricity transmission structures, as well as collecting and managing large volumes of inspection data.

This has brought a step change in defect identification, maintenance planning, and the tracking of remedial actions, helping utilities to maintain safe and resilient power grid networks, even when they are up against the most extreme environmental conditions.

The data that we gather is delivered as a daily report clearly identifying the infrastructure and equipment with defects that need immediate attention. This empowers the utility company to make better informed decisions when it comes to planning maintenance and assessing whether shutoffs are necessary. It can literally mean the difference between life and death.

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Global learnings

The images and stories coming out of the West Coast of the U.S. are reminiscent of the Australian bush fires last year. For the Cyberhawk team, the crisis brings back memories of many world emergencies.

In addition to the West Coast of the U.S., we have worked in Portugal, where each year the country is put on high alert for wildfire outbreaks. Recently we supported a customer in Central Asia, known for its extremely hot and dry conditions with recorded temperatures soaring as high as 120°F. Our drone-based inspections and maintenance programmes were able to prevent serious, life-threatening damage when lightning struck our customer’s infrastructure.

Looking back at these high-risk projects, we have learnt a few things along the way. For a start, we have built an exceptionally robust, high quality training programme for our team we’re proud of. This specifically includes training to ensure those working in the field are prepared for the threats they may face.

Of course we check weather conditions in real-time, and in advance of site visits to assess whether it’s safe, but weather can be unpredictable so it’s important that our teams are equipped with lifesaving equipment such as fire extinguishers, backpacks filled with water, shovels and bolt cutters to get out of a tough spot, along with well stocked first aid kits.

Furthermore, Cyberhawk has built its safety and quality reputation by operating in two man teams with a pilot only flying the drone as safely as they can and a payload operator focusing on high quality information that’s sole purpose is to help make informed and fast decisions. This process has been proven to result in the safest and most value adding approach allowing teams to work together to stay alert to the potential dangers around them as they work and administer first aid if needed.

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Cyberhawk is now also working to establish a single person operation process that retains the primary focus on safety and quality. Teams will never go into the field alone, but we are looking at ways to increase the inspection capacity per team. This is being done in conjunction with our Utility clients to ensure any increase in scope demand does not have a direct impact on safety, quality or speed of information delivery.

Communication also plays a big factor in what we do. We communicate well with each other, but we also effectively communicate with our customers. When working with utilities we work as one team, staying in touch to provide regular updates on our current and planned location to ensure we avoid any “danger zones”.

Above all else, we are seeing more and more utilities turn to trusted drone-based inspection services and digital data management tools to bolster their wildfire prevention and reliability programmes, across the world. This is a trend that we see continuing as the wildfire risk worsens.


We at Cyberhawk want to express our sympathies for those effected by the wildfires currently in the U.S., and want to take this opportunity to promote the Red Cross Disaster Relief and Recovery Fund for America, which helps support evacuation centers and recovery programs for affected communities.