Do We Really Think a Wayward Drone Caused Last Night’s Power Outage?

pgedrone

A Sunday evening power outage along Hampshire Street in northeast Bernal Heights may have been triggered by an errant drone. Or, the blackout may have had nothing whatsoever to do with a drone, but for some rather coincidental timing.

Neighbor Teresa reports:

Residents of Hampshire Street lost power at 5:04 tonight. 34 homes were affected. A few of the neighbors saw something kind of big hit the power pole at Hampshire and Peralta. There was a small explosion and all went dark.

Was it a plane? Was it a bird? Was it… a drone???

PG&E crews are searching the area around the power pole right now.
Looking for … THE DRONE!

Power was restored in about two hours. Thanks PGE! This is the best of you!

Neighbor Margo adds:

Power is out here in the Hampshire sector of Bernalwood. Apparently some guys flew their drone into the power lines on the pole at the corner of Peralta and Hampshire. The explosion was impressive enough that my husband Lynn thought it was right outside our house, which is a half-block away.

Some of the neighbors told me that a few guys came looking for the drone, but when they realized it had caused a power outage, they said were looking for their friend’s drone. The PG&E guy said that he hadn’t heard of this happening before. So it might be a first. Probably won’t be the last.

But wait, did this even happen at all? Was a drone to blame? We shouldn’t be so sure.

The title of SFGate’s story provides the first clue that this tale should be approached with skepticism: “Did wayward drone knock out power in Bernal Heights?”   That right there is a classic instance of Betteridge’s Law, the truism that any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no.’ (Please find lots more examples of Betteridge’s Law here.)

And then, of course, there are the actual facts: Apparently, no one actually saw a drone hit the power line, and no drone was recovered from the scene. From SFGate:

A witness, Scott Kurth, was working at his computer when he saw a flash of light and heard a loud pop on a power pole at the intersection of Peralta Avenue and Hampshire Street, in the northern corner of Bernal Heights. The power went out in 34 homes at 5:04 p.m, according to PG&E spokesman J.D. Guidi.

Kurth did not see the impact but said a few minutes later that a man in his 30s came running up and admitted he had lost control of a drone he was flying at a nearby playground.

“He was talking to us, and we were looking for the drone with flashlights,” Kurth said. When PG&E arrived, the drone pilot moved on, Kurth said.

After power was restored, the crew searched for the drone but could not find any evidence of it, Guidi said.

PHOTO: PG&E crew working on power outage on Hampshire last night, courtesy of Neighbor Teresa

11 thoughts on “Do We Really Think a Wayward Drone Caused Last Night’s Power Outage?

  1. I can confirm that no one saw the drone EXCEPT the few people that showed up immediately after the power outage and were looking for a drone “for a friend.” Eventually, they admitted that it was their drone they were looking for. They had an iPhone that was paired to the drone that was showing its last known position over one of our rooftops. They were very apologetic, but very eager to find it—they were climbing people’s stairs to get a better vantage point onto rooftops, combing through all of the bushes, and borrowing flashlights to search in the trees, too.

    The suspicion amongst the neighbors gathered watching the madness was that they were eager to find it because of the new FAA registration mandate. It is probably traceable back to them via a serial number and the fact that it caused real damage was probably making them nervous.

    PG&E was also very interested in finding it. They searched trees and bushes after they finished the repair and had a better idea of where they thought it went based on what they could see while up on the utility pole. It was too dark really for anyone to find it last night, though.

    • As a note, the new FAA regulation only applies to aircraft over .55lb/250g in weight (https://www.faa.gov/uas/registration/). A majority of the “toy” variety quadcopters will be less than that weight (even some decent ones with cameras, iPhone controls, etc), I already checked and the two I own are well under that weight.

      Unless they were using a pretty big drone, I’m a little skeptical that it should be able to cause a power outage. Many local birds weigh more than that and we don’t see a lot of stories about pigeons causing power outages.

      • I don’t know the weight but the size they described was about 12″-15″ in diameter. It strikes me that this was a freak accident based on where it hit the wires / utility pole. The drone did actually break the connection, but it didn’t cut it. From watching PG&E make the repair, it looked like it hit one of the connection points where the middle phase connected to the pole. I think it is called a “floater” where the tension breaks the connection to protect the wires. The drone hit that point on the pole hard enough that all of the wires off the pole were shaking back and forth.

      • Funny you should mention birds… this actually happened just recently (maybe 2 weekends before Christmas) right near the Old Clam House on Oakdale. I happened to be admiring the scenery as I cruised Loomis St when there was a flash, kaboom and a column of yellowy smoke rising from a utility pole on the corner. All the power went out in the area, including the traffic light at Cortland. Folks drifted out of warehouses to see what was what.

        And there, in the middle of the road lay a partly barbecued bird flat on its back, poor thing… never knew what hit it (well, never knew what it hit, really)

        PG&E crews arrived, gathered up the bird, and got the power restored within the hour. So, yes, @adamphelps, local birds do cause power outages…

      • Several different scenarios are being confused here:

        1) Extremely unlikely any drone could physically damage a power line. The lines themselves are so strong that poles are occasionally completely severed (vehicle crashes, fires, etc.) and remain hanging by the wires they support.

        2) Birds, squirrels, etc. don’t get electrocuted because they don’t make a complete circuit. They sit on a line, but don’t contact ground or another line to become a path for electricity. A barbecued bird must have contacted a wire at a point where it could also touch a path to ground at the same time. A drone could conceivably contact across two such points and complete a circuit. But what would be left wouldn’t be fixable. I’m thinking charred smear on the ground…

        3) If an object survived the enormous current for more than a fraction of a second in scenario #2, the power surge would trip line breakers, causing a local outage.

        I believe these are the basic possibilities… so this outage most likely wasn’t caused by a “drone.” (A word that has unfairly been corrupted by military usage.)

      • takebackthegreen, actually I think you’re confusing the scenarios because you lack information that was available to those of us that witnessed all of this firsthand. Lest you think me naive about the power side of things, I have a BS and MS in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering and have actually worked in the utility industry.

        1) It actually did cause physical damage. PG&E confirmed the damage by showing all of us the actual fault. The drone did not hit the pole or even the line directly; it hit the stirrup clamp on the middle phase line… exactly at the clamp, breaking the clamped connection. Here is a photo of the pole in question with a red circle around the spot that it hit and that PG&E subsequently repaired. We could see where the clamp was detached, leaving a physical gap of ~6″. This isn’t hearsay—I personally talked to the lineman that came out to diagnose the outage and watched the crew install a temporary splice, followed by replacing the actual connection.


        ~I haven’t tried this image hosting service before, but here goes~

        2) The drone didn’t bridge across the lines, completing a circuit. It broke the physical connection at the clamp and then the current arced across the gap. That was the flash of light that several of us witnessed directly. I do agree that the amount of current that arced across that gap most likely fried the circuitry of the drone. Since it didn’t complete the circuit directly, it makes sense that it didn’t just go up in flames at the spot, but I do believe that it is toasted.

        3) I believe the breakers did trip and, from listening to the lineman, I believe that they initially tried to just remotely reset the breakers before they discovered there was a physical fault in the line (or they have trip-and-reclose style breakers). The outage affected several homes in the area that were on that middle phase. I don’t know the exact number, but the whole 1500 block of Hampshire was out along with several homes on Peralta and Cesar Chavez.

        There’s a whole lot of armchair analysis going around, but I’ll lay out the simple facts:
        1) *Something* broke the line for one phase of the power by coming into contact with one of the clamps at the utility pole.
        2) Two things happened simultaneously: an enormous popping sound and flash of light, both resulting from the current arcing across the newly formed gap in the line.
        3) The loss of power and loud noise brought most of the street out to the sidewalk almost immediately, so several neighbors were gathered around to talk with each other, the PG&E team, and the guy who lost his drone.
        3) In less than 5 minutes, 2-3 people came running up looking for a lost drone “for a friend,” but were evasive when asked why and whose drone it was.
        4) One of these guys ultimately admitted that it was HIS drone, that he WATCHED it hit the power line because he was chasing it after he lost control, causing the arc of current, and claiming that he saw it careen off to the west on Peralta. Let me say this again clearly: He said he saw his own drone hit the power line. He apologized profusely for the disruption and chaos.
        5) Due to confusion on how far it might still have been able to fly after the collision and the onset of darkness, no one was able to locate the drone. At this point, I have no idea if he has been back in daylight and found the thing. While I and other neighbors helped him look, he showed me the drone app on his iPhone showing the drone’s last known position basically 50ft from the pole.

        There’s actually no question whatsoever—a drone (yes, a politically-charged name for a toy quadrocopter) caused the power outage. When the reporter from the Chronicle spoke to me, I was unwilling to personally vouch for anything I didn’t see with my own eyes but shared with him what I learned from speaking to others. I baulked at some of the language he repeated back to me, which is why he ended up with such a wishy-washy story.

  2. Moultrie Street on the south side also went briefly dark at the same time. That makes me suspect that this outage was in a larger area than just NE Bernal.

    • That is pure coincidence. There was a break in the line at Hampshire and Peralta that the PG&E lineman pointed out to us that PG&E sent 4 trucks to repair. Watching them repair it was a neighborhood event. I just don’t see any way that the two can be related.

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