Drones with Data Intelligence Take Wildfire Prevention to New Heights

As the United States wildfire season continues to lengthen, electric utilities could find new value from drones backed by advanced analytics to help prevent disasters.

Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones can deliver literal birds-eye views of potential problems – encroaching vegetation, damaged equipment, nearby hazards – when there is still plenty of time to fix things.

This year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, drones can also help keep people safe, going into the field to gather data while human experts stay safely inside and receive high-quality data for better business decisions.

“Drones can quickly and efficiently gather information from power poles across vast expanses of the landscape,” said Ron Gray, a senior solution engineer at SAP. “With analytical insights on where the biggest potential hazards are, electric companies can develop a prioritized schedule of inspections and maintenance plans, including outage management timeframes. This would also help utilities correct missing or inaccurate information on equipment with fact-based mapping data and prove compliance with regulatory reporting mandates.”

Humans Plus Machines Solve Data Management Problem

One co-innovation example from SAP and Intel uses drones to collect real-time image data from electric equipment in the field. Deep learning algorithms in the Intel Insights Platform identify and prioritize high-risk areas from the images captured by drones across the poles, wiring, transformers, and other equipment that carries electricity across transmission and distribution lines. Experts at the utility could then log into the cloud system for a top-down view of the findings, which are color-coded by equipment type and risk level.

For example, someone could see plastic debris that needs clearing from the top of wires, if a wooden pole is rotted, or that there is a tank located much too close to the pole. Once the inspection analysis is complete, the results are pushed to plant maintenance in SAP S/4HANA. This triggers notifications that are easily bundled into field work orders using the SAP Asset Manager mobile app to address anything that requires attention. None of this automation negates demand for human judgment.

“While AI-based algorithms can recognize images indicating vegetation encroachment, the human component comes in to review and confirm or deny the analysis,” said Mark Christian, a business development professional at Intel Geospatial. “An arborist has the expertise to assess the health of a tree or if that species is protected under environmental laws. A tree may need trimming, but if it’s dead or dying, it could require removal to prevent it from falling and causing more damage.”

Maintenance Made Easy

Having drones collect data that is analyzed in a cloud platform and connects back to daily business processes like equipment inspection, scheduling, and maintenance could well be the future of automated wildfire risk mitigation.

“Utilities could section thousands of square miles into ‘inspection corridors’ for drone flights, measuring risk by various parameters, such as areas that are at greater risk for fires, equipment types and age, and weather conditions,” Gray said. “Capturing this information within plant maintenance in SAP S/4HANA, which also has a geographical-enabled framework, would allow utilities to define maintenance plan areas and send work orders by exact location for each piece of equipment. Utilities could document that an inspection took place, and if corrective action was required.”

Data Insights Drive Cost-Efficient Operations

Essentially functioning as early warning indicators, the image-based data and analysis of equipment in the field would not necessarily be caught by human inspectors on the ground, or even someone venturing skyward in a bucket truck. It is also about potential cost-savings for utility providers operating equipment in an increasingly tough economy.

“Utilities would see immediate value from having access to visual images of poles and wires that document exactly what’s going on in hard-to-reach terrains and outdoor environments,” Christian said. “They could reduce unnecessary truck rolls to conduct visual inspections and verify installations, which is a key metric in the industry.”

Intelligent Enterprise in Action

Many industries are hitting the accelerator on technologies that bring substantive returns on investment (ROIs), allowing more people to work remotely and with greater intelligence and efficiencies. For utilities, the partnership between SAP and Intel is designed to bring the best innovations from both companies – especially during these challenging times.

“Utilities face huge pressure to meet changing consumer power needs, as well as sustainable energy demands in an increasingly volatile environment that includes extreme weather and the pandemic,” said Brian Kadien, general manager of the SAP Strategic Partnership with Intel.

Vishal Sanghvi, marketing director of SAP programs at Intel, added that “Intel’s technology collects and analyzes information directly from the field, while SAP brings the agility of real-time data across connected business processes. The Intel and SAP partnership helps unlock the potential of data. This is the Intelligent Enterprise in action, helping utility employees in maintenance, capital project improvements, the environment, and vegetation management make important business decisions to keep the lights on.”


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This story originally appeared on SAP BrandVoice on Forbes.