Welcome to the Fifth Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management!
Nigel’s journey in the vegetation management space began several years back when a tragic wildfire struck his home and left devastating damages in its wake. He recalls that “there were several hundred people killed, millions of stock razed and farms destroyed.” The following year, Nigel was recruited into the old state-owned electricity corporation. It was there that he learned the business of designing, managing, and operating distribution assets. Over the next ten years, Nigel held a range of roles in the utility industry. His final role was as bushfire mitigation manager where he developed the corporate policy network for the authority insurance policy. During his time in these different roles, Nigel became familiarized with vegetation programs as it was a significant part of working with utilities. He spent several years gaining experience in the industry and finally went on to build his own business that focused on outsourcing the vegetation management role. Eventually, he sold the business but kept some of the technology that arose from it.
Digitization: New Beginnings
There have always been efforts in the past to utilize technology to evolve the vegetation industry. However, in Nigel’s opinion, none of these technologies have been developed properly enough to replace business programs effectively.
“The challenge, of course, has been, you know, how do you digitize that? We’ve seen mobile mapping. We’re now seeing satellites, which are all very interesting.” Nigel’s decades of learning while working several roles in the industry and opening his business allowed him to develop a technology meant to facilitate business operations better than existing technologies. The goal, Nigel explains, is to remove “as many boots off the ground as we can in order to let the automation take its place.” This way, skilled arborists and foresters will only do the work they are trained for instead of completing mundane tasks.
Digitization: The Challenges
With new and exciting technologies comes a certain level of disruption. Implementing new processes of doing things in business changes the dynamics and roles between companies and clients. This can be scary because of the challenges that can come from a big market transition. There are several layers of hierarchy to reach and there are a lot of people who must learn the technical aspects of the new software. Nigel believes that the best way to begin such a change is by supplying everyone with better information. Being more informed allows for better execution and risk reduction. Essentially, the goal in turning to digitization is to have “more granular, deeper, better data to do better analysis, supply risk equations and cost equations.” There is still some work to do with this new technology as there is room for improvement with the automation process . This is why a major focus for Nigel is scaling up the capacity of pushing out usable data in the fastest manner. The execution of implementing new technologies really comes down to working in a collaborative way and building trust. In Tej Singh’s words, “It still requires an element of good human interaction and good execution.” Ultimately, Tej goes on, “there’s still that balance of technology meets good decision making.”
Nigel and his team have found light to be the most accurate source of data. Nigel explains that “once we get beyond visual line of sight drones in the air, it’s going to be very tough to beat the accuracy” that LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) provides. LIDAR facilitates the discovery of obstructive vegetation by using laser light to locate objects on the Earth’s surface (Read more on this). With this software, the utility vegetation management industry is getting more precise and quality data than ever before. Utilities are able to have data that is more attuned to their own needs with compliance measurements and clear zones. LIDAR is opening the door to a more cost-effective process of capturing the minimum data with more efficiency.
Cultural Differences and Similarities in the Utility Vegetation Market: Australia vs. the U.S.
Nigel’s Australian perspective offers a unique cultural lens of how the market is different overseas. Although there are many similarities between the two markets, there are notable differences in the way businesses operate. What works in one place may not work in the other. Climate change is one factor that greatly affects the way Australian utilities work compared to the ones in America. For example, Australian utilities cannot simply stop cutting trees because of budget limits. Too many wildfires occur and businesses must continue to conduct reviews in order to ensure the safety of communities. On the other hand, defining the clearance on tolerance limits is a similar process for the regions. Nigel mentions that in Australia, they’re “required to keep trees outside of the zone, and in many places in the U.S. it is required to cut the trees to outside the zone.” On the topic of clearance, Nigel notes that the people he’s discussed with in the Australian market have shared their affinity for the idea that “they can challenge their regime and understand the cost of change in the clearance side.” While there are complexities in the way different geographical areas manage risk and strategize solutions, there is an advantage there. “What we can do is interact better and learn more from the other side of the fence, share better information, be collaborative in those sort of things because there are learnings from both sides” Nigel expressed. With light technology, utilities don’t have to worry about “one size fits all.” If utilities can understand their risk profile through the environment of their customers and other factors, then they can apply different clearance regimes to different areas. Having access to a singular set of reliable data, Nigel says, “becomes a critical path for the future.”
Some quotes have been modified for length and clarity.
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