Recent posts by Matt Sheehan highlighting the beauty and potential of fusing various satellite collected geospatial data sets to mitigate utility risk from vegetation have got me thinking: can this type of advanced geospatial technology produce meaningful ROI without near total automation?

Don’t get me wrong, I love the technology, it’s awesome, beautiful, and allows us to understand our world in new ways. The ability to quickly identify and prioritize stretches of infrastructure at greatest risk and produce detailed work orders to address them, all from the comfort of a standing desk is cool.

But do we really need LiDAR, multispectral, and hyper-spectral imagery beamed from a multimillion dollar satellite, processed by supercomputers, and presented in high definition to recognize and prioritize the trees we need to cut? I’d be willing to bet the folks in the office love these “actionable” visualizations and tout their value, while the guys in the field today can take one look at the transmission line and trim these exact trees with their big ass saws without looking at fancy photos.

Who has time to pull out a tablet, wait minutes for fused images to render, if they render at all in the backwoods, only for the computer to tell them what they already know?

And there you have it: do they really know?

It used to be that folks would work their whole lives in a single career, developing expertise and passing it on to the next wave of technicians who came after them. They could easily tell you the last time they’d serviced a particular stretch of lines, the growth rate of each species of tree, their heights, how healthy they are, and which ones need attention just by looking at them.

These days are ending.

While the folks in the field are still incredibly skilled and hard working, the brain trust of deep knowledge is waning, leaving gaps in need of filling. Geospatial technology promises to not only fill these gap, but make information and analysis previously isolated in the brains of experts available to any interested party in new and interesting ways.

Yet, the question remains: do we really NEED it?

The answer of course is: it depends.

We don’t really NEED anything. Not even air. But we do need certain things IF we wish to accomplish other things. But I digress…

In the use case of utility infrastructure, the cost benefit analysis of deploying geospatial technology involves:

  • Value of assets
  • Risk of asset damage from vegetation
    • Likelihood of damage
      • With technology
      • Without technology
    • Cost of outages
    • Cost of repair
    • Cost of liability from collateral damage
  • Cost of maintenance
    • With technology
    • Without technology

So here’s the rub: over what period of time does technology decrease the cost of maintenance and the likelihood of damage to infrastructure enough to cover the cost of the technology?

How much faster and easier is cutting the vegetation with the help of technology to prioritize areas and create detailed work orders?

Today, my guess is not much.

But, and this is a big BUT, tomorrow, the game changes.

When the current generation of experts ages out of the workforce, the gap created will NEED to be filled to sufficiently mitigate risk. This is when the ROI of powerful geospatial technology will begin to be realized.

Yet, I hold that the truly meaningful ROI will not materialize until we no longer deploy men and women prone to injury and death from the big ass saws used to cut down these tree missiles, but have the saws do it themselves. Massive time series geospatial data sets will drive the deployment of these automated big ass saws, as they will provide the digital foundation enabling autonomous equipment to navigate the physical world.

So we may not NEED LiDAR, multispectral, and hyper-spectral imagery to reduce risk and preserve lives today. But we will tomorrow. Unless of course these saws are connected to Skynet, which is a topic for another day…