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Episode 7: Clearion CEO Christopher Kelly on the Geospatial Tech Behind Vegetation Management

Welcome to the Seventh Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management!

In the seventh episode of Trees and Lines, our hosts Tej and Phil are joined by co-founder and CEO of Clearion, Christopher Kelly. Clearion is modernizing field workflows in practical and powerful ways through a suite of innovative software. The company focuses on facilitating the vegetation management process for utilities around the world.  Chris’ industry experience of over fifteen years and his unique perspective on software solutions made this discussion a particularly insightful one. Some of the topics we dive into include geospatial technologies, cybersecurity, leadership, and pollinator preservation. 

The Global Market

Today, there is a growing interest in digital vegetation management tools around the world. Clearion currently has a customer footprint in North America, New Zealand, Australia, and South America. In Europe, remote sensing data is a great point of interest and an area of opportunity for operationalizing through digital tools. “There are a lot of similarities between what Australia is dealing with and what we’re dealing with in the U.S. from an operational and technology perspective,” says Chris. However, every region approaches vegetation management in its own way and implements software according to its unique needs. For instance, New Zealand’s national regulations treat tree trimming differently and place more responsibility on landowners. Because of these different regulations, Chris’ organization approaches software development in a very flexible way. Solving the varying problems presented across regions means that the software must be configurable.

Cybersecurity

Clearion has been operating as a global organization for over ten years. With the company being international, cybersecurity is an important consideration for the protection of critical infrastructure. To ensure that products and the product development process are properly secured, the company has an extensive amount of product code security such as multi-factor authentication. Looking deeper into the supply chain, foundational technology like Microsoft is well monitored and protected as well.

 

Sustainability

In the last couple of years, Chris explains, Clearion has been honing in on overhead asset inspection and maintenance management, both for electric distribution assets and electric transmission assets. Other large areas of focus for the company are environmental sustainability and community engagement solutions that are integrated into field operations for utilities. For example, Clearion is currently involved in the Pollinator Habitat Initiative. Chris also helps organizations that need wood chips. One instance Chris helped supply wood chips was when a park in his neighborhood was struggling to obtain a supply. Before that, Chris learned of a community farm in Atlanta that partners with a women’s transitional facility for women that are leaving the prison system and training to become farmers. This farm was also having issues with acquiring wood chips, so Chris connected them with Georgia Power. Through their app, Clearion has made it easier for Georgia Power crews to get in contact with wood chip donation sites. Utility vegetation management (UVM) can be very complex. Chris believes that “you need a really good system to manage all of the facets of your program.” Because of the flexibility of their software, Clearion is able to innovate as needed.

Pollinator Preservation

Another area of interest that Clearion is helping to solve is pollinator preservation. “Why do we believe in things like pollinator habitat? It’s not just because butterflies are pretty to put on your website, but it’s an endangered species situation, says Chris.”

Fun Fact: The existence of a third of the food that we eat such as fruits and vegetables, relies on the work that pollinators do (read more on CBSNews).

What Chris and his company are doing is helping with pollinator decline to make sure endangered species don’t go into extinction. Right now, the monarch butterfly is on the verge of being listed as a threatened endangered species. When this occurs, it will have a profound effect on the work that any right-of-way (ROW) organization does. To help preserve these species, the ROW Habitat Group is helping negotiate a legal framework with the federal government to maintain a pre-listing conservation agreement. With this agreement, companies can comply with pollinator preservation ahead of endangered listings without having a major impact on operations in the future.  

Leadership

In the age of COVID and the current rapidly changing environment, it can be difficult for leaders to maintain company culture and efficiency. Since day one, it was clear that Clearion’s cross-functional teams needed a system where people in different parts of the country could work effectively. Because of this, Clearion established a work structure that made it seamless to transition to remote work during the pandemic. Since then, Clearion has grown its teams in every functional role which means that the company has had to focus its efforts on implementing better management. Chris believes that you can increase work productivity and efficiency by “getting everybody into a single system where you can streamline communication.”

As far as company culture goes, Chris shared that the challenge comes in when not everyone understands each other. That is why it is especially important to help people truly understand the problems that they are solving and the impact this has on things like safety, reliability, and sustainability.

The Future of Technology in Utility Vegetation Management

In the early 2000s, LiDAR was an expensive and time-consuming system to use. Today, satellite imagery has become a lot more cost-effective and the speed of processing data has improved. The evolution of automation has allowed companies to utilize satellite imagery and remote sensing technologies for vegetation management a lot more. In fact, Florida Power and Light obtained BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) approval to fly a small unmanned aircraft. This is the first time a company has used a fixed-wing, unmanned drone outside of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) testing site. Chris believes that the industry is moving more towards a technological landscape with a lot of remote sensing data. Artificial Intelligence is another aspect that is highly relevant to remote sensing data and Chris thinks that “if we can figure out the speed and the accuracy of this remote sensing data it will be very impactful.” AI is very good at picking up patterns such as recognizing faces in photos, so there is a lot of potential there to transform this into a useful tool for the industry. Fortunately, there are many players big and small that are working on this and investing in technologies around remote sensing, data processing, and AI. It is only a matter of time before technology becomes even more efficient and useful for UVM.

 If you have questions about efficient vegetation management solutions contact Iapetus Infrastructure Services. Our team of experts will support you through a wide range of vegetation and contractor management challenges. Don’t forget to leave a review if you enjoyed this week’s episode and follow our LinkedIn to stay updated on the latest news

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