The U.S. electrical grid is the largest interconnected machine on Earth. Over 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 5.5 million miles of local distribution lines link thousands of electricity-generating plants to homes, schools, companies and all manner of buildings, street lights, stoplights and other nodes of vital infrastructure.
A typical utility company today can patrol 10 percent of their entire system per year, according to Snappy Workflow CEO and co-founder, Dusty Birge.
That means it takes the average utility company 10 years to inspect every inch of their system. If a location in the grid develops a weakness the day after passing an inspection, it could take a decade to uncover said weakness—unless it manifests itself in an obvious (and potentially dangerous) way, such as through blackout or fire.
This is the issue Kearney-based startup Snappy Workflow has set out to fix.
Here’s how it works: a proprietary data-collection software helps utility companies automate thermal and visual inspections of power lines via roof-mounted thermal cameras on vehicles. Birge estimates that this technology could help companies inspect their electrical grids ten times faster.
And the more vehicles that use these thermal cameras—and the farther they drive—the more quickly and easily companies can inspect their grids.
“A lot of utility company trucks are driving the roads daily,” said Birge. “They just don’t have a way to document it.”
Birge’s co-founder was previously CEO of an electric utility in Nebraska, one that controlled about 2,500 miles of power lines. An annual inspection rate of 10% meant that 250 miles needed to be patrolled each year. Documenting that amount of inspection using old-school methods proved to be inefficient.
“Even though the odometer on the trucks totaled over 300,000, they couldn’t prove which 250 miles they patrolled,” Birge said.
Without solid proof, utilities have a much harder time receiving FEMA assistance in the event of disaster. Snappy Workflow is designed to help solve that problem.
Five utility companies in Nebraska have already signed on to test the technology. Such strong early customer demand recently helped the company close $1.02 million in investments from Invest Nebraska, Nelnet, Nebraska Angels, the Husker Venture Fund and various private investors.
Funding will help the company accelerate field testing of the technology this summer before commercializing it in early 2023.
Birge first conceived the idea in the NMotion Venture Studio—a program powered by startup accelerator gener8tor—using the program’s $100,000 investment. Snappy Workflow also secured a $45,000 prototype grant from the State of Nebraska Department of Economic Development to continue early development.
When local utility companies got wind of the project, customer interest skyrocketed, as Jayson Bishop can attest. Bishop is the General Manager of Midwest Electric, one of the five utilities that have signed on to test the new tech.
“We continue to look for ways to be more efficient and more effective in providing safe and reliable power to our members,” Bishop said. “We feel this technology will provide us with better information than we’ve had access to previously and will allow us to prevent outages before they happen.”
Moreover, the company is committed to growing in Kearney while creating new, high-paying, high-tech jobs in central Nebraska, according to a recent press release. These jobs will play an important role in using state-of-the-art tech to address what company founders consider a pressing national issue.
“Reliability of the nation’s electric grid has never been a higher priority,” said Curtis Kayton, co-founder and president of Snappy Workflow. “Snappy’s asset inspection technology, combined with the speed and ease of use, will enable any provider the ability to operate a well-maintained, documented and highly reliable system.”