Routine monitoring and inspections to protect the integrity of Alabama Power‘s 85,000 miles of power delivery infrastructure; enhanced security at the generating plants and other critical sites, and for facilities and equipment in Alabama Power’s 45,000 square-mile service area; increased effectiveness and efficiency in responding to, and recovering from, severe weather and other emergencies.
These and other objectives can be achieved using data and insights gathered through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or, as they’re commonly known, drones. That’s according to Keith Miao, co-founder and CEO of Birdstop, a San Francisco-based remote sensing company that helps owners of large-scale infrastructure collect and manage detailed information on their assets and operations.
“It’s about protecting critical assets,” Miao said at a recent demonstration of the infrastructure Birdstop is developing, thanks in part to the Techstars program and other Alabama-based resources and financial support. Protecting assets using the latest technology and equipment, he added, will enhance employee safety and result in cost savings for Alabama Power and its 1.5 million customers.
“We see ourselves as a constellation of satellites, but on the ground,” said Miao, explaining the concept behind the technology that allows users to manage and deploy UAVs to aid in making data-based visual assessments. “Birdstop can collect data and monitor assets without sending personnel into the field – or at least allow you to know more before you send people out. During emergencies, it can inform decisions about the crews, equipment and tools to be deployed.”
The Birdstop demonstration took place at the Alabama Power General Services Complex (GSC) in Calera. On a brisk and mostly overcast morning, about 20 people from the company were on hand, including Gordon Martin, senior vice president of Corporate and Administrative Services, key Power Delivery and technical personnel, Corporate Security leadership and some of Alabama Power’s growing number of licensed drone pilots (60-70 pilots of about 200 within the Southern Company system). Miao and Birdstop lead field engineer Robert Reynoso demonstrated the company’s ground node unit and UAV, monitoring two Alabama Power pilots through brief data collection flights and answering questions afterward. The Alabama Power representatives were eager to learn more, welcoming the possibility of increased commitment to drones as a component of operational efficiency.
“We’ve been working for several years to utilize drones to improve safety and reduce costs,” said Bobby Hawthorne, manager of distribution engineering services and a leader of APC’s drone activities. “Birdstop is an opportunity to look at how we might use their technology and capabilities to maintain our system and ensure its security.”
Joseph “Win” Perkins is a safety specialist at the GSC and has been a drone pilot for two years. He’s seen many changes in the capabilities of UAVs during that time and expects more to come, and more opportunities to capitalize on the technology.
“It’s evolved a lot,” Perkins said. “Ultimately, it will change the ways we operate.”
Martin pointed out that Birdstop is one of 10 startups from across the United States and Canada in the 2021 class of the Techstars Alabama EnergyTech Accelerator. Martin serves as a Techstars mentor, along with Arnab Ghosal, general manager of Power Delivery Grid Inform and Connectivity, and Roy Sexton, vice president of Corporate Security. The three consult with Birdstop and other startups on business strategy.
“I’m excited about the prospects of working with Birdstop,” Martin said. “There could be some real opportunities to enhance the inspection of some of our critical assets, not to mention myriad other potential applications. I think there’s a good chance we can increase reliability, reduce outage times and reduce costs for our customers.”
Miao was straightforward about his company’s objective, saying “our ultimate vision” for growth would be providing service for all of Alabama Power’s footprint. He took note of the importance of proving the technology, navigating regulatory issues and establishing the commercial value of the company.
“If it can be proven out at select critical facilities, that would be the first step on a journey to roll it out across the grid,” said Miao. “I hope we’ll have that opportunity.”
Learn more about the Techstars Alabama EnergyTech Accelerator here.