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  • Writer's pictureJena Blazer

How Utilities Leverage Satellite for Critical Data

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

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Utility companies value satellite technology to improve their efficiency and reduce their environmental impact. For years they have relied on geographic information systems (GIS) for precise infrastructure mapping and locating. Utilities also use satellites for remote imaging and sensing to monitor and maintain their assets.

Advances in technology are now moving to new levels with improved, more capable satellite technology and advanced data analytics, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence. Integrating satellites and analytics yields greater sensitivity and introduces new predictive capabilities to head off problems and respond more quickly to adverse events.

Let’s look at a few of these developments in more detail.

Managing power lines and controlling vegetation

Vegetation growth is a significant problem for power utilities. Controlling vegetation is necessary to prevent trees and vines from encroaching on aerial transmission and distribution lines.

Trees and limbs damaged by age, disease, wind, rain and ice can fall onto power lines and cause shorts. These incidents can damage equipment, interrupt service to thousands of customers and spark devastating wildfires during dry conditions.

Several companies offer satellite services to help power companies monitor vegetation encroachment and other potential hazards. For example:

  • AiDash monitors utility lines and predicts problems before an outage or wildfire occurs. The company analyzes repetitive images and ground-level observations to predict and verify trouble spots. Machine learning models combine agriculture and climate data to predict vegetation growth rates, trim cycles and labor requirements.

  • UP42 provides GIS, satellite aerial photography and LiDAR (light detection and ranging) images in a new open satellite and data analytics platform.

  • IBM PAIRS GEOSCOPE is a subscription-based AI cloud platform that collects and organizes massive amounts of geospatial and temporal data. Data include maps and sensor information from satellites, weather, aircraft and drones. Subscribers can use the platform to develop custom applications and services.

  • Oncor, Texas’s largest utility company, is one of the first customers to use the vegetation management database.

Preventing and mitigating wildfires

Damaging and deadly wildfires in California and other western states have become more intense in recent years. While lightning or human activity causes most wildfires, they can ignite when power lines are down or blown together by high winds. In fact, power companies have drawn criticism both for causing wildfires and for preventively shutting off power during hazardous conditions.

Satellite technology is helping these companies avoid the toxic pairing of power lines and fires:

  • PG&E and the University of Wisconsin Space Science and Engineering Center worked together to develop a fire detection map to keep people aware of fires in PG&E’s operating territory. This online map displays alerts and updates every five minutes using MODIS and VIIRS imaging data from GOES satellites.

  • Washington state fire officials appreciate how GOES satellites detect lightning strikes in real time and use infrared sensors to see through clouds and better pinpoint flames, smoke and hot spots. Alerted officials can initiate actions before fires spread.

Monitoring underground utilities

Satellite technology also plays a role in sensing and monitoring underground utilities such as gas, electric, water and wastewater lines. Engineers use images and data to map underground lines and supporting structures. GPS also helps contractors locate hidden underground facilities before digging and construction. Take a look at these satellite innovations for underground utilities:

  • A new leak-detection product called Utilis uses L-band satellites with synthetic aperture radar to detect drinking water’s optical signatures. Utility companies can use this data to pinpoint previously undetected water line leaks. Telespazio uses similar methods for a satellite imaging program in the UK to encourage water companies, engineers and regulators to reduce water leaks.

  • A unique application of satellite sensors is a new product called SmartCover, which helps detect water and wastewater overflows. SmartCover sensors attached to manholes, well covers and other points detect overflowing or flooding and send alerts via satellite systems. The devices also sense when someone has removed or tampered with a cover. Many other locations can be monitored, including canals, rivers, streams, reservoirs, dry wells, tanks and drainage channels.

  • Gas companies will soon be able to use newer, low earth orbiting satellites to detect leaks from buried pipelines. Called PipeWatch, the system captures RBG (red, blue, green) satellite images of vegetation covering the pipeline. Variations in plant colors indicate saturations of gas leaking into the ground.

Advancing renewable energy

Satellite technology can help plan and manage wind, solar and other renewable energy. Images and sensors collect data about solar irradiance, wind speed, precipitation and other useful factors for site selection, engineering, construction and facility operations. An example is Canada’s RETScreen software developed to analyze project feasibility and ongoing facility performance.

Promoting economic, environmental and public policies

Energy, natural resources and industrial production are significant markets, and several companies are introducing online satellite and big data marketplaces. These cloud markets offer satellite data and advanced data analytics to provide insights about technology and market factors to businesses, governments and investors:

  • Kayrros is another company that sells satellite imagery and analytical data to guide decision-making.

  • An international coalition named ClimateTRACE was announced recently by former US Vice President Al Gore. It will employ artificial intelligence, machine learning, satellite image processing and other remote sensing technologies to monitor greenhouse gas emissions across the globe.

Utility regulators and public officials also look to satellite data to manage a broad range of regulatory matters. Some of the most critical are carbon and methane emissions from power plants and pipelines, watercourse discharges, environmental pollution and damage.

Beaming power from space

Satellites in space may capture solar energy and beam it down to earth in the not-too-distant future. In fact, work is already underway:

  • Forbes and others have reported China’s plans to build the world’s first satellite solar power station, which would essentially provide infinite amounts of clean energy.

  • In May 2020, the US Naval Research Laboratory launched an experiment to test capturing energy from space for use on earth. A device called the Photovoltaic Radio-frequency Antenna Module rode on the Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane to capture solar energy, convert it into microwaves and beam it to a ground station.

  • Solspace, sponsored by a five-year grant from the European Research Council, will explore ways to reflect sunlight down to earth to keep solar farms generating power after dark.

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