Closely Examining How A PG&E Transmission Line Claimed 85 Lives In The 2018 Camp Fire

In 2018, the Camp Fire devastated a huge swathe of California, claiming 85 lives and costing 16.65 billion dollars. Measured in terms of insured losses, it was the most expensive natural disaster of the year, and the 13th deadliest wildfire in recorded history.

The cause of the fire was determined to be a single failed component on an electrical transmission tower, causing a short circuit and throwing sparks into the dry brush below – with predictable results. The story behind the failure was the focus of a Twitter thread by [Tube Time] this week, who did an incredible job of illuminating the material evidence that shows how the disaster came to be, and how it could have been avoided.

Mismanagement and Money

The blame for the incident has been laid at the feet of Pacific Gas and Electric, or PG&E, who acquired the existing Caribou-Palermo transmission line when it purchased Great Western Power Company back in 1930. The line was originally built in 1921, making the transmission line 97 years old at the time of the disaster. Despite owning the line for almost a full century, much of the original hardware was not replaced in the entire period of PG&Es ownership. Virtually no records were created or kept, and hardware from the early 20th century was still in service on the line in 2018.

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The Final Days Of The Fire Lookouts

For more than a century, the United States Forest Service has employed men and women to monitor vast swaths of wilderness from isolated lookout towers. Armed with little more than a pair of binoculars and a map, these lookouts served as an early warning system for combating wildfires. Eventually the towers would be equipped with radios, and later still a cellular or satellite connection to the Internet, but beyond that the job of fire lookout has changed little since the 1900s.

Like the lighthouse keepers of old, there’s a certain romance surrounding the fire lookouts. Sitting alone in their tower, the majority of their time is spent looking at a horizon they’ve memorized over years or even decades, carefully watching for the slightest whiff of smoke. The isolation has been a prison for some, and a paradise for others. Author Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 in a lookout tower on Desolation Peak in Washington state, an experience which he wrote about in several works including Desolation Angels.

But slowly, in a change completely imperceptible to the public, the era of the fire lookouts has been drawing to a close. As technology improves, the idea of perching a human on top of a tall tower for months on end seems increasingly archaic. Many are staunchly opposed to the idea of automation replacing human workers, but in the case of the fire lookouts, it’s difficult to argue against it. Computer vision offers an unwavering eye that can detect even the smallest column of smoke amongst acres of woodland, while drones equipped with GPS can pinpoint its location and make on-site assessments without risk to human life.

At one point, the United States Forest Service operated more than 5,000 permanent fire lookout towers, but today that number has dwindled into the hundreds. As this niche job fades even farther into obscurity, let’s take a look at the fire lookout’s most famous tool, and the modern technology poised to replace it.

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2019 Cornell Cup Winners Include Autonomous Boat, Flapping UAV, And Leaping Rover

For college-aged engineers and designers, finding a problem they’re truly passionate about early on could very well set the trajectory for an entire career. This is precisely the goal of the Cornell Cup, a competition that tasks applicants with solving a real-world problem in a unique and interesting way. From what we saw this is definitely working, as teams showed up with ornithopter-based quadcopters, robotic dinghies, forest fire sniffers, and high-jumping rovers.

With such an open ended approach, individual entries have a tendency to vary wildly, running the gamut from autonomous vehicles to assistive technology. No team feels pressured to pursue a project they aren’t truly invested in, and everyone’s the better for it.

Given such lofty goals, Hackaday was proud to sponsor the 2019 Cornell Cup. Especially as it so closely aligns with the product design focus of this year’s Hackaday Prize. Designing something which solves a real-world problem is definitely part of the formula when the goal is to reach large scale production. And after seeing the entries first-hand during the Finals at Kennedy Space Center, we think every one of them would be a fantastic entry into the Hackaday Prize.

I don’t envy the judges who ultimately had to narrow it down to just a few teams to take home their share of the nearly $20,000 awarded. Join me after the break for a closer look at the projects that ended up coming out on top.

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“Drones” Endanger Airborne Wildfire Fighting

usdaThere is no denying that personal drones are in the public eye these days. Unfortunately they tend to receive more negative press than positive. This past weekend, there were news reports of a wildfire in California. Efforts to fight the fire were hampered when no less than five drones were spotted flying in the area. Some reports even stated that two of the drones followed the firefighting aircraft as they returned to local airports. This is the fourth time this month firefighting planes have been grounded due to unmanned aircraft in the area. It’s not a new problem either, I’ve subscribed to a google alert on the word “Drone” for over a year now, and it is rare for a week to go by without a hobby drone flying somewhere they shouldn’t.

The waters are muddied by the fact that mass media loves a good drone story. Any pilotless vehicle is now a drone, much to the chagrin of radio control enthusiasts who were flying before the Wright brothers. In this case there were two fields relatively close to the action – Victor Valley R/C Park, about 10 miles away, and the Cajun Pass slope flying field, which overlooks the section of I-15 that burned. There are claims on the various R/C forums and subreddits that it may have been members from either of those groups who were mistaken as drones in the flight path. Realistically though, Victor Valley is too far away. Furthermore, anyone at the Cajun pass flying site would have been fearing for their own safety. Access requires a drive through 3 miles of dirt road just to reach the site. Not a place you’d want to be trapped by a wildfire for sure. Who or whatever was flying that day is apparently lying low for the moment – but the problem persists.

Rules and Regulations

In the USA, the FAA rules are (finally) relatively clear for recreational drone operations. The layman version can be found on the knowbeforeyoufly.org website, which was put together by the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), and other groups in partnership with the FAA.

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