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What Technology for Utility Vegetation Management — LiDAR or Satellite?

LiDAR and satellite both play their role in vegetation management. Indeed, LiDAR was crucial for bringing the process into the digital age, while satellite ensures a monitoring capability for many infrastructure networks.

LiDAR is undoubtedly an incredible technological capability, and witnessing actual objects transformed into 3D digital representations is inspirational. The excitement around LiDAR has convinced Apple to introduce the technology into the latest versions of their devices. The newest iPhones and iPads are now equipped with LiDAR scanners, enabling improvements in photographic scanning depth. As the uptake in LiDAR continues, many more people will soon have the technology available at their fingertips.

Apple users are already enjoying LiDAR technology

LiDAR In Vegetation Management

LiDAR is playing a significant role in digitizing network risk identification in Vegetation Management. LiDAR-equipped helicopters enable a ground analysis to be completed much quicker than a manual scan on foot or a wheeled vehicle. It also allows scanning with greater detail and with increased attention than can be achieved by the human eye. However, research suggests that the use of LiDAR technology has already peaked within Vegetation Management.

Limitations of LiDAR Within Vegetation Management

Although the benefits of LiDAR-equipped helicopters are tangible, unfortunately, the cost is equally striking. At around $400 to $700 per mile, it is challenging to justify using such assets to scan an entire distribution network. Consequently, the technology is only deployed to monitor sections of the grid.

Therefore, vegetation managers remain uncertain about the conditions of significant portions of their networks, resulting in a reliance on visual inspection by ground patrols. These human-eye inspections are also relatively expensive to carry out. Moreover, they take longer to conduct and are more challenging to incorporate into a consolidated broader picture.

Power lines can cause disruptions to the aerial scans made by heliborne LiDAR assets. These disruptions result in delays in reporting the vegetation conditions to the utility providers. Because of the extended turnaround times for scans, fast-growing trees, so-called cycle-busters, routinely get missed. Also, prioritizing inspections and risk assessments are more challenging because of the lack of uniformity in the data from various sources.

As the environment rises in the public’s awareness and concern, utility providers are increasingly faced with a dilemma regarding vegetation management. Expanding their monitoring capability through the use of jet-fuelled helicopters while simultaneously trying to improve their carbon footprint appears to be opposing options for the environment.

Finally, there is also the risk of accidents to consider. Although pilots are well-trained and follow strict aviation protocols, accidents involving helicopters can occur, resulting in injury or death.

Satellites Have the Benefits Without the Drawbacks

Advances in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and increased access to high-resolution satellite data, satellite monitoring is now a practical alternative to LiDAR for conducting infrastructure monitoring. There are undoubtedly several advantages of using satellite monitoring.

The benefits of satellite vs. LiDAR appear clear

It is now possible for country-scale monitoring of infrastructure networks to occur via satellite, and LiveEO is one provider of such services. They provide satellite monitoring to Deutsche Bahn, Europe’s largest railway operator, and EDP, the Portuguese electric utility supplier. You can make massive savings from satellites compared to the cost-per-mile of using LiDAR-equipped helicopters. Therefore, it’s possible to achieve an excellent ROI on large-scale monitoring activities.

LiveEO utilizes bespoke software for vegetation management, which can identify areas of vegetation along the grid. As all the data comes from a single source, vegetation managers receive an accurate and timely overview of the entire network.

Satellite imagery comes with a resolution high enough to enable horizontal encroachment within the ROW to be detected. This detection is done with a 1–1.5 ft. (0.3–0.5m) degree of accuracy. Something many people find surprising is that satellites can assess the canopy height of vegetation. Thanks to Stereoscopic imagery, satellites can detect the height of trees to an accuracy of 5ft (1.5m). Although this falls short of LiDAR’s accuracy, it is sufficient for most purposes.

As satellites are constantly orbiting the earth, obtaining insights into a network’s condition can be achieved much quicker than using a ground patrol or LiDAR-equipped helicopter. This speed enables much quicker actionable deliverables; in weeks rather than months.

Frequent satellite updates mean that near-real-time monitoring is becoming available throughout the growing season, meaning it is possible to detect cycle busters. It also allows for validation and checking of cutback works by subcontractors and monitoring tree health and vitality.

Satellite monitoring also helps improve your environmental credentials. No fossil fuel is required, as there is with ground patrols or helicopters. Also, there is no human involvement, so the risk of accidents is removed.

Satellite Monitoring is Becoming the Industry Standard

With LiDAR offering higher imagery resolution than satellites, there will be utility in using this technology on a case-by-case basis. However, most vegetation management situations lend themselves to satellite monitoring. Satellites offer more rapid delivery and at a higher frequency. They also provide a whole-network picture without the safety and environmental issues of using helicopters or ground patrols.

If you need any advice on the best solution for your organization, contact us today.

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LiveEO utilizes artificial intelligence to translate satellite data into actionable business insights for enterprises worldwide.

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