Pinpointing targets in Afghan deserts should be as easy as sending in the drones, or so it’s depicted in Hollywood movies. In reality, our military uses stealth technology to track targets and map unchartered terrain.
“Unlike in the movies, there’s no noise in the desert and you can hear a drone from miles and miles away,” said PSEG Senior Executive Security Specialist Joseph Zyla, who started serving as an Army Combat Engineer, from 1988 to 1992, and culminated in the U.S. Army National Guard Special Forces from 1998 to 2004. “The advantage of using specialized technology was significant.”
Zyla is one of several veterans who now work for PSEG who used the predecessor to Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology while in combat and were excited to learn that the tech is being piloted at PSE&G Distribution for civilian duty, including vegetation management, storm response and equipment surveys.
LiDAR uses lasers, light pulses and sensors to detect objects and offer data, such as size and location, which is particularly useful for digital mapping. Developed for the military in 1961, today’s LiDAR is widely used for 3D mapping in agriculture and architecture and as a critical component in autonomous vehicles. LiDAR helps improve reliability for customers by giving PSE&G a better way to view and map poles and other equipment, so that when damage occurs repairs can be made safely, quickly and effectively. PSE&G is one of only a handful of utilities in the nation using LiDAR.
“Our company always has been known to be at the cutting edge of technology to improve all aspects of what we’re doing,” Zyla said. “These practical applications are really beneficial.”
“I used it in Afghanistan in 2003 and, just during my six-month rotation, its enhancements were considerable,” Zyla said. “From a military perspective, Afghanistan had little to no mapping… This technology was like sitting in front of a computer terminal and looking out, as if you’re flying a plane or following the contour of the land. It allowed us to plan routes, find easier ways to go and identify what was most dangerous.”
PSE&G Principal Engineer Charles Hatton, a Marine who served from 2003 to 2015 and also did tours in Afghanistan, used forms of LiDAR on aircraft and on land. He said a lot of people believe utilities are slow to use technology but that it’s common for things developed for the military, like GPS, to find broader applications.
“The benefits of technology aren’t always obvious,” Hatton said, “but once you get people to test things out and show others, they can become advocates.”
PSE&G Emergency Preparedness Manager Mike Weber said the Distribution company started discussing LiDAR a few years ago as a safety initiative because 800 employees annually are trained to go out and conduct visual damage assessment during storms. Metro Division Manager Al Nicol, who helped pilot LiDAR, said the technology is faster, cheaper, safer and more accurate than manual inspections.
PSE&G can use LiDAR to digitally capture its territory. This data can then be used to compare changes to the system after a storm, better understand the proximity of vegetation to circuits and, in the near future, potentially assist with identifying the health and species of trees. It’s also useful for asset condition assessment.
LiDAR generally is collected from an airplane or drone. During the pilot stage, flights took place in October and PSE&G also utilized a less expensive method of collecting LiDAR while the sensor was attached to a car. To date, about half of the PSE&G service territory has been mapped.
“The LiDAR data is captured at 360 degrees and corresponding photo images are collected at the same time. Once the data is captured, computer algorithms are used to extract those things one is interested in observing,” Weber said. “If you can see it with your eyes, LiDAR can capture it and more. There will surely be multiple groups within PSEG that benefit from this data.”
PSE&G Transmission has used LiDAR about every three years for a few cycles now to find things that are too close to the highest power transmission lines and mitigate, said Jim Meyer, Transmission Facility Ratings, NERC Standards & Compliance manager. Meyer, who is also a veteran, said he did not use LiDAR in the military.
During the current Distribution pilot, LiDAR is being used primarily to show tree encroachment in proximity to power lines.
“We’re using technology to take people out of harm’s way,” Weber said, “and to work smarter, not harder.”