• Kaitlyn Albertoli and Vik Chaudhry

Buzzing into the New Year: A 2020 Recap

The challenges, lessons learned, and opportunities in power utility inspection market


In the utility industry, 2020 held great promise of investments in innovation and new technologies to improve efficiency and reduce risk associated with grid-related incidences. In January, presentations at one of the largest utility conferences in the U.S., DistribuTECH, boasted of immense progress with utilities beginning to embrace digital transformation, integrated asset management/workflow systems, and improved grid modernization technologies. The promise of 2020 would bring further acceleration and adoption in these areas. However, as with the rest of the world, the Coronavirus pandemic in March drastically shifted the year’s priorities and posed a whole new need for flexibility and adaptation. In order to best understand and recap the utility market in 2020, at Buzz Solutions, we aim to assess the challenges, lessons learned, and the opportunity for growth in many of these areas.


The critically essential utility sector is no exception to the impacts and hindrances of COVID-19, with unforeseen operational uncertainties and challenges. This includes social distancing guidelines, manual requirements of inspections and maintenance, as well as the massive flux of individuals working from home.Similar to health care professionals who have fearlessly served their communities, linemen and field technicians have worked tirelessly on the frontlines of inspecting and maintaining the grid to keep it up and running. With visual inspections and maintenance processes requiring manual team labor, social distancing guidelines and collective maintenance projects have become significantly more complicated and this is one of the ways utilities have had to adapt. Remote sensing and autonomous inspections are now more critical than ever. The drastic adoption of drone technologies and expansion of drone inspections teams across major utilities is one key demonstration of this adaptation.


Market Drivers


As grid infrastructure continues to age, the demand for comprehensive and more frequent inspections becomes even stronger to reduce the risks and damages associated with many of these incidences. The combination of aging grid infrastructure and continually increasing maintenance backlog presents a higher chance of grid-related incidences in hotspot areas, also known as high risk areas. In fact, Southern California Edison (SCE) has estimated that 60% of faults that existed in high-risk fire areas resulted in sparked wildfires. This is a staggering statistic given that nearly one-third of SCE’s faults exist in these high risk zones. As climate change continues to drive greater periods of drought on the West Coast, one can expect that more of these high risk zones will occur and the areas of potential risk will extend. In a similar situation, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) began instituting forced shutdowns of power in 2019 to reduce the risk of wildfires in high-wind and high risk fire areas. This practice has continued into 2020 and is expected to continue in the years to come as these utilities do not have an alternate solution for wildfire prevention and risk mitigation. Figuring out a way to detect faults and identify high-risk areas earlier is critical. Furthermore, protecting grid infrastructure while renewables continue to come onto the grid has never been more important.



Challenges


Grid strain and increasing problems with resiliency can be attributed to a number of issues, including booming populations and pressures to convert to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. One key example of this increased strain is demonstrated with the impacts of climate change cause longer and more widespread heat waves. In August, as Stage 3 Electrical Emergency was declared, Pacific Gas and Electric instituted rolling blackouts due to energy shortages for the first time since 2001 as record-breaking temperatures put fifty-six million Americans under heat advisory warnings. There are several lessons which can be learned from these practices. The combination of rolling blackouts and forced shutdowns demonstrates the need for more effective and more efficient solutions. These shutdowns and rolling blackouts solely serve as a temporary solution or a bandaid. Grid reliance and grid resiliency are two of the main focuses for many utilities at this time. Figuring out a way to protect grid infrastructure while renewables continue to come onto the grid has never been more important. Furthermore, early detection of faults and identification of high-risk areas is critical. These two areas present real opportunities for potential grid improvement.


The first step to identifying these faults early is through conducting more frequent inspections. Power utilities perform regular, visual inspections of their transmission and distribution networks in order to maintain reliability, availability, and sustainability of our electricity supply. Recent mandates have directed power utilities to monitor their infrastructure more frequently. To meet this requirement, utilities have leveraged advancing drone/UAV technologies for monitoring and collecting critical data points around electrical infrastructure. Data collection has become more agnostic as a result of these stricter mandates and more frequent inspections. High-quality data is being collected from various camera sensor payloads on drones, helicopters, fixed wing aircrafts, ground vehicles and satellites. With advancing data management tools, utilities can collect and aggregate data from various sources. Currently, utilities are capturing hundreds of thousands and even millions of visual data points every year. But, how do they make sense of all of this data?



Opportunities


Today, an opportunity presents itself as power utilities look to implement technologies to help accelerate infrastructure inspections and analysis. As sensor and camera technologies advance, utilities continue to collect even greater amounts of data from the field annually. Further, with aging of power infrastructure, these inspection mandates are expected to become more strict, requiring more in-depth inspections around infrastructure and vegetation. This is where AI can play a vital role in this process, successfully sifting through massive amounts of data to learn and make efficient decisions. In the last decade, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning technologies have disrupted and even revolutionized both industry and society. In fact, the global AI software market is expected to grow over 150% in the next year alone, to approximately $23 Billion.


AI-powered platforms are helping automate and streamline the process of infrastructure inspections by deriving insights from massive amounts of visual data being captured in the field. AI and Machine Learning technologies are providing insights on faulty electrical equipment, failing structural infrastructure, encroaching vegetation on lines, and mapping various electrical equipment and structures for asset management. These processes of visual data management, mapping, processing, and analysis are allowing utilities to take faster actions on issues, which further increases efficiency, safety, and uptime for customers.


Buzz Solutions PowerAI software platform for visual data management, AI-based visual data processing and analysis


Buzz through 2020


2020 brought utilities an increasing need for software-based remote analytics solutions to help them manage and maintain infrastructure as their workforce transitioned to remote work due to COVID-19. At Buzz, our vision is to safeguard the world’s energy infrastructure by providing an AI-powered platform that provides actionable insights and analytics for power infrastructure inspections. 2020 was a busy year for the Buzz team as we ran pilot programs and projects with major utilities in addition to drone and helicopter service providers to help these companies make sense out of their in-field data. In fact, our AI platform analyzed around 3,300 structures and detected 12,000 different electrical and structural assets, of which 4,500 were faults and anomalies. If left unchecked, these faults could have resulted in downtime, malfunctioning power lines or even a power outage. Furthermore, we saw average cost savings of 50% and in some cases, even up to 80% savings compared to the cost of manual inspection analysis. Not only were cost savings a great value add, we were also able to save our customers months of analysis time so that they can take fast actions and preemptively prevent faults.


Furthermore, Buzz Solutions was highlighted in major media outlets such as Forbes, T&D World, PowerGrid International, WSJ, Energy Central, Crunchbase, SiliconAngle and Silicon Valley Business Journal for it's technology and solutions to modernize grid infrastructure and prevent wildfires. We also raised a round of funding from key strategic investors such as Blackhorn Ventures, Ulu Ventures, Vodia Ventures and Advisors Fund. Finally, Buzz Solutions co-founders, Vik Chaudhry and Kaitlyn Albertoli, were awarded Forbes 30 under 30 for the Energy category.


What's the Buzz in 2021?


As we move into 2021, we aim to accelerate the adoption of our AI solutions for utilities, with the goal of increasing both product and technology offerings for our customers. These product offerings include the addition of new sensor technology, deployment of our technology on additional devices, and increased capabilities of our Predictive Asset Management Systems. In the coming months, we look to explore the use of our AI systems for satellite, hyperspectral, and thermal imagery. In addition, incorporating LiDAR data is important to accurately map the physical environment in a digital world for better forecasting and managing of vegetation as it encroaches on lines. As edge computing devices become more powerful and less bulky, we plan to deploy our AI systems on these devices which operate on drones and other aerial vehicles. This will provide ease of fault identification and actionable insights to operators while still in the field. Finally, as we capture more historical data varying spatially and temporally, we will increase the capability of our Predictive Asset System, bringing our customers the value of forecasting and predictive insights. This technology will provide utilities with an inside look into the health of their infrastructure before it breaks down, allowing for proactive and preventative measures rather than a reactive maintenance approach.


2020 has undoubtedly demonstrated the need for adaptation across all areas of our business. While these challenges may have altered our daily operations, our vision for Buzz Solutions remains the same. This digital transformation within the utilities sector will not only aid in more informed, data-driven decision-making, but will also bring value in effectively forecasting and predicting the future health of our infrastructure. Leveraging this software and AI approach will create even greater systemic opportunities. Every day the power sector becomes less reactive and more proactive towards both chronic and acute problems on the grid.


Here’s to the future of technology that enables data-driven and predictive support of our electrical infrastructure. We are very excited for what is to come in 2021 for Buzz Solutions and are looking forward to serving the power market to safeguard the world’s energy infrastructure!


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