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Episode 37: Leveraging LiDAR and New Technology in UVM w/ Jennifer Whitacre

Episode 37: Leveraging LiDAR and New Technology in Vegetation Management w/ Jennifer Whitacre

Welcome to the 37th Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management​​

Trees and Lines Podcast – Episode 37

Join Iapetus Infrastructure Services (IIS) COO Tejpal Singh and Principal Advisor Dr. Phil Charlton for a conversation with Jennifer Whitacre, Senior Director of Strategic Accounts at NV5 Geospatial.

This episode is part of a special series of episodes recorded from the floor of the 2023 Trees & Utilities conference in Pittsburgh, PA.

Episode 37 Transcript

Philip Charlton: We’re doing another podcast from the trade show floor here at Trees and Utilities. With us now is Jennifer Whitacre, who is the Senior Director of Strategic Accounts at NV5. We appreciate you coming and joining us.

Jennifer Whitacre: Well, thank you for having me.

Philip Charlton: Start by giving us a little bit of background on yourself and NV5, and we’ll go from there. 

Jennifer Whitacre: My background is LiDAR. I’ve been working with LiDAR since 2000. I started with three Ball space engineers years ago. I learned LiDAR from the ground up out in the field, and then I’ve worked my way through technical aspects such as field operations, working in operations like writing presentations, proposals, contracting, and project management, and done the whole workflow for LiDAR and remote sensing. That brought me out to California. I’m currently working with NV5 Geospatial out of the Bay Area. 

Philip Charlton: You’re here because you’re presenting, right?

Jennifer Whitacre: Yes, I am presenting with Eric Brown tomorrow on remote sensing, insurance, and bringing down insurance rates because we’ve had a ton of issues with wildfires and extremely expensive insurance rates. Even in California, where I live, even with our homes, we’re losing our insurance.

Tej Singh: It’s a problem that the whole industry is facing because it’s also made being able to price projects uneconomic. There’s a bit of complexity with the utilities and the people that can provide services because insurance is a concern. There has to be a bigger conversation around that. We had Eric Brown, and Eric’s a regular guest on the podcast, and we had Neil Fisher as well. We were talking about the insurance. That’s great that you guys are focusing on that today.

Philip Charlton: Could you give us a quick recap of your presentation?

Jennifer Whitacre: Eric will be doing the meat and potatoes portion of that presentation. I’m supporting him in his program and what we’ve been doing together since late 2017. We’ve been providing remote sensing and putting together this really robust year-over-year data collection so that he’s able to quantify removals, mitigate risk, and help bring down those insurance rates. We can go in and state it through the LiDAR data, such as, how many trees have been removed? You have beautiful visuals that help tell a story to people who don’t understand the technology or what it’s doing, but it reports out, it’s unbiased, and it’s highly accurate. It’s a good story to tell your insurance people. He’ll then carry on with the conversation about what they actually talk about behind closed doors—working with the insurance companies and getting those rates down.

Tej Singh: You mentioned that you’ve been touching LiDAR since 2000, which, frankly, is a little unusual. I haven’t met too many people who’ve been that invested in it for as long as you have. What drove you to want to play in this space that early when it wasn’t so popular?

Jennifer Whitacre: It was an accident. I worked for the National Weather Service. I was in meteorology. That’s what I went to school for. I was working at the National Weather Service. I remember I was just bored. It was my first job out of high school or college, and it was very bureaucratic. I was like, there’s got to be something else. I also remember GIS when I was in school, and I wanted to take the class, but it was the very beginning of ArcGIS. I went back to school for my GIS certificate and then found a job. I was hired on the phone from a job I found on Monster.com or something at the time working with LiDAR. They told me that they would teach me, and that’s where it started. Working with sensors back then, I think we operated the first or second system that rolled off the line. It was like a little five-kilohertz system, and now that we’re at something unspeakable like technology changes, it’s fascinating to me.

Tej Singh: How would you describe NV5’s core business?

Jennifer Whitacre: We’re a full-service mapping company. We acquire data, we do analysis on the data, and then we answer questions. We own and operate our own aircraft. We have dozens of sensors from LiDAR, digital imagery, and hyperspectral, and we take these sensors and put them on various platforms—helicopter, aircraft, mobile—and then make the project. We have our tool belt where we can take those systems and fit them to the correct project. Then we take all that data, we analyze it, and then the answer is that we’re consultative, so we do have programs where we work to help build out large-scale veg management programs or asset management programs.

Tej Singh: Specific to the data side of it. 

Jennifer Whitacre: Yes. On helping the utilities be forward with the data, we don’t just drop it off at the doorstep and say we’re done. We’re here for the long haul. 

Tej Singh: There seems to be a lot of interest in data, how you can acquire that data, and the use of this technology. One of the challenges I’ve constantly heard from utilities and in the market is that the data is acquirable, but the turnaround time for providing analysis on that data in a meaningful format tends to be a bit of a challenge.

Philip Charlton: Probably the biggest. 

Jennifer Whitacre: I agree.

Tej Singh: How have you guys addressed that? What is your typical solution for that challenge?

Jennifer Whitacre: We were tackling it in a couple of different ways. We started our rapid reporting, which means we fly, and within two weeks of that data being collected, say for vegetation, we turnaround a rapid product that basically states the worst of the worst of the vegetation out there—things that need to be mitigated immediately. You have actionable data within two weeks of that data collection, and then the production side is still slower. We’re taking all that data; it’s running through our process, and we start delivering data six to eight weeks after that first data collection. We can do rolling deliveries. However, one of the other things that we’re focusing on is moving to more cloud processing to try to speed all that up with hopes of someday getting to that in real time. That is the point where everybody has baby steps.

Philip Charlton: The utilities have to be paranoid about security.  

Jennifer Whitacre: Yeah. The whole security side, that all goes through our IT.

Tej Singh: Generally, it’s a daunting space because the data and the way it gets collected are so vast. You need volume data.

Jennifer Whitacre: It is mind-boggling the amount of space that it takes just on our computers and our server space. We have to move it off of server space at some point and archive it. It’s just so much data. We may have 15 large projects going at one time, so everybody is trying to work on that data. It takes a vast amount of storage space.

Tej Singh: Maybe you can help the audience better understand some of the challenges that you guys face. Data aside for a second, in the role that you play with utilities and with utility clients, what are some of the challenges surrounding the FAA and beyond visual line of sight, having technology upgrades, and owning fleets that have to be updated? How do you guys manage through some of those challenges, and what are some of the critical things that get in your way? 

Jennifer Whitacre: One of the things about technology is that we pride ourselves on being big. We have a lot of access to different manufacturers; we get a lot of test data from different sensors; but we typically have to rotate our sensors fairly often because what might be great right now isn’t the newest in two years. We’re always looking at technology upgrades, and that’s not cheap. It’s an added cost that I don’t think people think about. One of the things I think people might not understand is the aviation side of it, the data collection and acquisition. For example, when we’re working with a fixed-wing aircraft and we have to work with the FAA and the utility, other stakeholders might be alerted to what’s going on. If you have things flying above your head, more so with helicopters than the fixed wing, but we’re still always working with FAA airspace, it can be a challenge. The Air Force bases that we might have to fly around are over, but all of these aircraft have to go into maintenance. I don’t think people take into consideration that there’s downtime that we have to take the aircraft down and get an oil change every so many hours. I don’t think that is often understood. Why aren’t you flying today? I’m looking out my window, and it’s sunny. Why are you not up in the air?

Tej Singh: That’s the client’s expectation.

Jennifer Whitacre: Agree, because you can sit, look, and say, It’s perfect weather; why aren’t we flying? That’s just the communication we have to keep up with, letting them know what the progress of the project is. I do think that one of the miscommunications with having the acquisition side of things is the whole maintenance of everything. 

Tej Singh: Are drones part of your portfolio as well?

Jennifer Whitacre: We do have drones. That group works right now with our NV5. NV5 Geospatial is a wholly owned subsidiary of NV5 Inc., which is a much larger company that has engineering. They help with a lot of gas work, undergrounding, and wildfire hardening. In the engineering design portion of things, we don’t do any of that. We’re not stamped engineers. We can take data products up to the point where they need to go now to the engineer. That group can then take that on from a design perspective. Our drone group right now is with that portion of the company.

Philip Charlton: You talk about real time data.

Jennifer Whitacre: Yes.

Philip Charlton: Where do you think this is going? What else is changing?

Jennifer Whitacre: The other thing I’d like to see is more live; you’re out flying video and you’re getting live feeds. You could have somebody sitting for emergency management support, say you have a lineman or somebody doing a desktop review, after an event, say it’s a PSPS event like in California with wildfire, and somebody is now sitting at a desk as this live feed of video is coming in from out in the field. They can be doing a visual inspection to get those circuits back online if they’ve been shut off during an event. A lot of it is speeding up the process. Looking at other technologies, there are a lot of different things out there, like SAR. There’s a satellite, which is progressing at some point; I think they do. It does a really good job of trending data, tree health, and things of that nature.

Tej Singh: Is your role more focused on the management of your existing client portfolio, or is it also to help identify new technologies and new partnerships? Can you maybe share with the audience the full scope of how you touch the industry today?

Jennifer Whitacre: I’m a little bit of all of that. I run our West Coast, and I work with a lot of larger utilities from Washington down to Southern California. We’re out in Colorado as well. I think my territory goes up to Colorado. A lot of it is working with existing clients and helping them become more programmatic about what they want to do. They know they want remote sensing and LiDAR, but they’re not sure how to get there. Maybe we’re doing little projects here and there, and they want to turn that into more of an annual cadence. How do I get from where I am now to where I want to be? That’s a lot of what I help with.

Tej Singh: The decision-maker within the client, because you’re dealing with technologies and data, is more the IT and technology leadership, or is it the operational leadership?

Jennifer Whitacre: I’ve seen them both. We also have software, and it’s our own web-based platform for visualization and data management, and a lot of that will go through IT and then a lot of the remote sensing. I’m dealing more and more these days with remote sensing PMOs where the utility is sending up its own remote sensing group, but otherwise it is working with operations and, like I say, the veg management group or the asset management group on putting together programs.

Tej Singh: Given your territory, is there a client in the market that you would say is best in class or has really adopted the most open way of thinking in terms of how they look at technology, data, etc.? Who’s the most advanced, in your opinion, in the market?

Jennifer Whitacre: That’s a very good question. I’m going to say that for all of our groups that have actually decided to start working with technology, I feel like a lot of utilities are very open to piloting new things, and if they’re already taking the jump into using remote sensing, LiDAR, and digital imagery, they’re more open to trying new things like hyperspectral for tree species. We’ve been doing that with several different utilities. One of the things that a lot of groups are doing now might have been a VM program, but now that data is being collected, it can be leveraged across the entire enterprise so other groups can take advantage of the data that’s being collected. Maybe your engineering group is using that data to update their PLS-CADD files, or maybe Hydro’s taking that data, looking at dams and distributions, and using it for assets. There are a lot of different use cases for the data that is collected once.

Philip Charlton: Where are we with species ID?

Jennifer Whitacre: It’s out there. The last project that I had, we had a 92%. What we’re doing now is looking at five species. We don’t recommend looking at 10 to 30 different species. You might have a whole hit list of the trees you want to identify, but that will muddle up your model. It’s not going to be able to focus on the results that you’re looking for, and I think that’s where your accuracy starts dropping. We like to look at smaller groupings. 

Philip Charlton: That covers majority of the work.

Jennifer Whitacre: Yes. For large areas, you have to look at different ecoregions too because all trees aren’t the same in different areas, like in California. For instance, there’s coastal and there’s inland in the Central Valley area, and there’s the Sierras, and everything is different.

Tej Singh: We’ve seen a lot of this, and I’m sure you’ve seen it in California, given that it’s also a technology hub, with a lot more money from the VCs and the private equity firms flowing into the space. There are a lot of competitive players out there doing similar things. You shared with us what NV5 focuses on, but maybe you can leave us with the unique value proposition that separates you from the marketplace.

Jennifer Whitacre: I do believe that NV5 Geospatial is unique, and the fact that we can scale means that we do very large programs. I don’t want to say that we’re the only ones that can do that, but I feel like that’s where we really excel: being able to take tens of thousands of miles of transmission and/or distribution and get everything out the door on time, on budget, and all that great stuff. Get it so that it’s actionable for the clients.

Tej Singh: Yeah. Very cool.

Philip Charlton: When’s your presentation?

Jennifer Whitacre: My presentation is tomorrow at 11:30.

Tej Singh: Was this your dry run?

Jennifer Whitacre: Yeah. Definitely.

Tej Singh: This is great. Thank you for making time. It’s a fascinating space that you guys are leading. We really enjoyed learning about you and your company. Thanks for doing this.

Jennifer Whitacre: I greatly appreciate you guys reaching out and asking me to be part of this. 

Tej Singh: That’s it for this episode of Trees and Lines, brought to you by Iapetus Holdings. If you like the show, please give us a five-star rating on Apple or Spotify. If you have any questions or comments on any of our episodes or ideas for topics or guests, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us at treesandlines@iapetusllc.com. We’ll chat with you soon.

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