Utilities turn to artificial intelligence
Artificial intelligence (AI) boasts a wide range of potential applications, across nearly every industry imaginable — healthcare, automotive, retail, even fast food.
But it is the utility industry where AI and machine learning (ML) are beginning to demonstrate some of their most impactful effects on many aspects of the business. Power companies are increasingly leaning on AI to improve their electricity delivery an– in places like the Amazon and California – prevent potential wildfires through drone management software and vegetation management. In a post-COVID world where a reduced on-site workforce is quickly becoming the norm, AI is actually enhancing human jobs.
From data collection and analysis to the presentation of actionable insights, AI and ML algorithms are quickly redefining how utility companies manage their electric infrastructure.
Consolidating and classifying data
Utility companies oversee massive infrastructure networks, comprising poles, conductors, substations. Transmission and distribution lines which contain these crucial components span thousands of miles. Vegetation management around this key infrastructure must also be monitored, as it presents a danger of fire or outage.
Taking a comprehensive snapshot of these assets means utilizing a variety of different sensors for powerline inspections. These sensors include light detection and ranging (LiDAR), colour (RGB), hyperspectral and thermal imagery.
This allows the drone mapping software to capture everything — from vegetation proximity to infrastructure assets, to individual components (such as insulators on transformers) and their operational integrity to hot spots indicating potential fire risks.
That is a lot of data to capture, catalogue and process. And there are a lot of individual elements within that data — even in just one image — to pinpoint and classify, let alone do so accurately. Classifying billions of data points across all those sensors is an impossibly time-consuming task to do manually.
AI and ML tools can accomplish that same work — scanning thousands of images collected across thousands of miles of utility infrastructure — in seconds. LiDAR point cloud segmentation can detect conductors (quite a difficult component-type to segment) with an accuracy of over 95% for each individual point, while hyperspectral image segmentation can identify vegetation species with an accuracy of up to 99%.
More than that, when paired with drone sensors, these algorithms can also improve the upfront data collection. AI and ML tools help to adjust the sensor systems positioning in real-time. In the event that a signal is lost or the drone veers slightly away from its inspection flight path, an EDGE AI algorithm running on the professional drone or pilot hardware can help the drone to readjust its focus through object detection, or avoid collision through onboard collision avoidance
By helping to readjust the sensors’ bearings while in flight, AI not only ensures more accurate data collection but guarantees that the flight doesn’t need to be repeated or prematurely ended because of inaccurate data collection, saving valuable time and resources. ML techniques can spot any faults in the sensors or the drone’s flight path while in the air, recalibrating as needed and identifying individual elements within the data as it comes through the sensor’s video feed.
Breaking down silos to create a holistic data approach
Key to all of this is eliminating the silos that tend to naturally build up between different data segments. In the utility inspection space, asset management, and vegetation management, different sensors and so on all produce their own disparate, walled-off sets of data.
When data is kept siloed like this, it becomes unnecessarily difficult, for teams to derive company-wide insights or conclusions from the information being collected. And what good is all that data if it can’t be used to check against itself and compliment other sets of data?
Good data management cannot exist in a piecemeal approach. It needs to be holistic, and AI provides the impetus to make that happen. AI provides a central resource for pooling all these data sources together, making it easier for data analysis for potential problems — like wildfire-prone vegetation or damaged components. When these issues are collected in one system, it becomes much easier to identify faults and resolve them — and do so far faster than it would be to manually sift through countless images of poles or vegetation maps.
In spite of all the common concerns about AI eliminating work for human beings, at utility companies AI actually enhances the role that people have to play in the network and powerline inspection process. Because the AI is the tool that carries out the data analysis, it is not something that is dependent on the potentially biased expertise of a professional human inspector, nor is it prone to fatigue and the anomalous results that can come from that, rather the drone inspection software. But at the same time, AI cannot do everything itself. It is a method for presenting clearer, more accurate and more actionable information for people to then act on with their own judgment.
There are a lot of easy-to-make assumptions, both good and bad, about AI. With communities beginning to emerge from lockdown and social distancing heralding a marked shift in day to day life, what AI really means for the utility industry is less reliance on manual inspections and a more efficient and effective tool for providing the right information about a power company’s infrastructure — its transmission and distributions lines, its poles, and its nearby vegetation — into the hands of its key decision-makers.
This article was contributed by Jaro Uljanovs, Lead AI Developer and Data Scientist, Sharper Shape
Technology revolution for water retailers
In April 2017, the UK’s water retail market in the world opened for business – the single biggest change to the water sector since privatisation. This development allowed businesses, charities and public sector organisations to shop around for the best deal.
However, like any industry, this change hasn’t been without its sticking points; here, Paul Williams, CTO at Everflow Tech (pictured far right), discusses how retailers can harness technology to their advantage
Quotations could take up to a week to produce, billing software had to be manually updated and brokers were unable to manage the complete customer journey in one place – all of which took time, cost money and allowed for human error.
The more complexity that was involved in billing or quoting, the more contact end customers needed to have with their retailers, pushing up the cost to serve for every SPID. This meant retailers – ourselves included – found themselves in a situation where profits were simply eaten up by service costs.
We also note that it can traditionally be hard for retailers to stay on top of balancing what they are charging their customers with what they are being charged by the market. To further exacerbate this, the longer a change goes unnoticed, the more trouble it can be to balance the issue.
It was these issues that Josh and his (at the time) small team wanted to ameliorate, creating their own technology in the absence of anything else.
This technology evolved into our award-winning retail sales, billing and customer management platform for the water retail market, and Everflow Tech was launched as a standalone venture in 2018, selling the software externally for other water retailers and their customers to benefit from.
What retailers want
As a relatively new entrant to the world of utilities competition, the water market could be seen to be lagging behind, particularly when it comes to innovation.
In fact, as recently as 2019, Ofwat said it expected the industry to be making technological advances and to be working with a culture of innovation, collaborating with companies both within and outside of the sector.
And with cost-savings for consumers traditionally lower than for other utilities, retailers need to be offering something more – whether that’s better support, energy-efficiency advice or more accurate data.
What’s more, consumers have had a taste of the power of technology, and they’ve come to expect nothing less from retailers across the board.
Another key issue – thrown into sharp relief during the past 12 months (and counting) of a pandemic – is rising levels of arrears, which are likely to increase bad debt beyond margins that retailers originally allowed for when the market was created.
In such a low-margin industry, there is a limit to the amount of debt retailers can take on, especially as recovering costs can be a very slow process. Ofwat has signalled that this issue could be addressed as early as this year, with a mechanism for recovering bad debt to be established during 2021/22.
The market needs simple solutions to better serve the end user, and we were perfectly placed to develop those solutions. At Everflow, our software is designed for the water retail market, by the water retail market.
As well as simple billing, clear-to-understand workflows, and a revenue assurance system to allow retailers to quickly compare market charges, Everflow has also introduced a complete debt solution, allowing missed payment dates to drive late payment charges and escalations automatically.
Retailers are able to design and put out their own bill and quotes, tailoring customer journey and overall experience – whatever the circumstances.
What does the future hold?
Automation is key to any industry; we’re heading into an age of driverless cars and smart homes, and this drive for tech will filter through to our industry, and we need to catch up.
The Internet of Things – a network of physical objects connected to each other – means human error (and effort) can effectively be removed from many everyday tasks, which goes for meter readings too. However, in the 21st century, the water market is still not leveraging previously emerged technology in the form of smart meters to provide accurate billing.
Consumers are also becoming more empowered, both to ask for information and change their preferences if they don’t like what they learn. Retailers need to be armed with this information, not next week, not tomorrow, but now – and, at Everflow Tech, we’re putting that information at their fingertips.
But the retailers themselves need to speak up too, and we will always work with them to get the best ideas on what needs to be developed and when.
Our strong bond with Everflow Water, along with other key customers, means we have a direct interest in making sure our systems serve the water market in the best way they can.
For us, the goal is to make sure retailers on our platform can grow as much as possible, leaving behind laborious daily processes to focus on their own strategic growth and, most importantly, helping their customers.