Global Grid Inspection Startup Technology Landscape
Infrastructure maintenance is a challenge. Even more, it is a growing one, as the way we use the infrastructure is changing rapidly, driven by the sustainable energy transition. It is a challenge that when unsolved, can cause enormous damage to the environment and immediate populations, ranging from rolling blackouts to all engulfing fires like we have seen in California, US most recently.
Having invested in three drone companies: Sterblue, Hepta and Thrust Intelligent UAV Systems, we wanted to share our view on automated grid inspection technologies and where we see the solutions developing further. That is why we would like to share our landscape of companies developing grid inspection technologies.
Why we think these technologies matter
Hepta and Thrust differ from Sterblue in that they both develop hardware as well as software for drone-based grid inspections. Hepta offers inspection by a single-rotor drone with 10 times the range of typical drones. It has a number of commercial clients in Europe including Elektrilevi and Imatra Elekter in Estonia and DTEK in Ukraine. Thrust Intelligent UAV Systems designs and manufactures fixed-wing drones capable of carrying heavy payloads, such as multiple high resolution sensors for data gathering.
Investing in three drone companies helps to increase the development of a solution for automating the inspection of the grid by utilizing multiple hardware or software technologies. The goal of the hardware is to create demand for the drone service in the first place.
Discussing the potential cost reduction of traditional grid inspections, the potential is a 50% decrease by utilizing UAVs in observing the grid. But the extension of the cost reduction can increase even more (eg. 3–5x) in case of implementation of multiple sensors (LiDAR sensors, IR, corona, etc.) and integrating data management (e.g. deployment of image recognition and machine learning).
While the value proposition of RPAS on the basis of direct cost reduction is very tangible, the main factor is the prevented costs arising from overlooked maintenance. Utilities, especially distribution grids, operating thousands of miles of low and middle voltage lines, find cost-efficient inspection methods inevitable to keep the electricity bills low to end-consumers while maintaining profits for the shareholders. As helicopter inspections are somewhat expensive, utilities often seek less frequent inspection cycles as an alternative to keep their costs low. There are many examples from history where similar approach has leaded to wildfires and disasters. Low-hanging wire sags mixed with high humidity, high ambient temperature and aggressively growing vegetation are highly likely to create unexpected situations. The most common causes are weather-related events that cause damage to lines and the equipment attached to them. Once damaged or downed, wires may contact trees and other combustible materials resulting in sparks, smoke, and fires. As drones offer cost-efficient inspections with accurate and close-up views to power line elements, wire sags and vegetation monitoring, utilities can increase the sequence of planned maintenance inspection flights to bring wildfires caused by electricity grid to zero. In other words, implementation of different drone platform related technologies brings crucial and noteworthy values in addition to the price component, leading to higher level of digitization, automation, accuracy, safety.
When talking about the inception point of such technologies in the power sector, we must understand that there are broader developments required in aviation regulation, like beyond visual line of sight flights, where the full potential of UAVs may be realized. We are tracking the development of regional and global standardization, rulebooks, and terms for safe and certificated drone usage. In addition the technological complexity, when using a mix of different sensors, aerial platforms, and incorporating data science still requires considerable expert know-how in the field, which means the companies automating inspection have an educational role to play with each grid operator. This pays off in the long term, as utilities who have started to implement drone inspections in the previous years, have started to request for more often regularly performed inspections.
Let us know if you have any suggestions on the landscape!
P.S. Check out the full database of carbon management and emissions reduction companies on the map here.