UVM Bid Process Overhaul and the Digital Utility

Vegetation Management Crew Worker

Reflecting on the recent Trees & Utilities conference attended by vegetation management professionals this past September, it’s clear that utilities are shifting focus to technology adoption. Key themes this year included the implementation of remote sensed data and integration with GIS-based mobile applications.

Interest surfaced in several sessions on ‘digitizing’ data and processes related to turning remote sensed data into actionable insights while automating inspections. Recent advances in technology are giving operators affordable means to reduce overhead, streamline the inspection process, and effectively take control of their vegetation programs. Presentations revealed how emerging technology can be applied to direct planners and tree crews to precise locations to perform their work, proving there is more than one way or one source of data to advance digital transformation.

We also observed that regulatory requirements are becoming hinged on real-time reporting capabilities supported by dashboards to improve operational oversight. Whether automated survey or mobile collection, it is the accurate data that drives analytics. As such, conference topics reflected a growing interest in data driven insights and mobile app adoption.

While utilities have automated many tasks within their programs, few have achieved an end-to-end digital transformation. A key missing component in vegetation management is the bid process automation. By starting with the bid process, the utility can begin its digital journey in this area of operations. Getting this right is critical as veg management can be the largest O&M budget at the utility.

Balancing Risk in Bid Package Creation

An annual or multi-year bid package is developed based on historical costs and anticipated work for the upcoming year(s). Foresters and tree crews walk-out a portion of the service area to determine work required per circuit, whether accessible or inaccessible. This part of the bid process is labor intensive, costly, and time consuming due to a ‘boots-on-the-ground,’ paper-based approach. Because only a portion of the area is surveyed (about one third), the assessment is incomplete and inaccurate, especially when the contractor is unfamiliar with the system. The current methods delegate most of the risk to the contractor, but ultimately, the utility is impacted. Identifying and anticipating risk is one of the most overlooked aspects of preparing bid packages. And while contractors carry the burden, the utility may end up with overpriced, noncompetitive bids, or worse—underpriced bids that lead to contractor turn-over.

The Roadmap to Bid Process Transformation

The time for transformation is now and the bid process is a good place to start. Utilities need an accurate spatial inventory of their vegetation assets within and outside the right-of-way (ROW). An assessment of the current state utility vegetation management (UVM) program is step one in developing the initiative. To get a project started, utilities should first decide on a methodology, with many opting for agile. Agile gives teams more flexibility, encouraging collaboration and shared experiences while working together to achieve incremental improvements.

Developing a comprehensive, digital roadmap helps define and manage the initiative. As a high-level plan, the roadmap outlines what the business wants to achieve and the key initiatives to move the current state (mostly manual processes) to the future state (digital transformation).  Whether waterfall or agile, the roadmap outlines which digital initiatives will have the most impact against strategic goals.

Selecting an agile methodology also affects supply chain. Agile has turned the traditional procurement process upside down. For enterprise alignment, the procurement practice is becoming less strict, less conventional, and more open and collaborative. This shift in contracting is essential to achieve optimal agility enterprise-wide.

Understanding Key UVM Challenges

As stated above, utilities today face significant challenges in controlling budgets while ensuring safety and regulatory compliance. Taking control of the end-to-end UVM process encompasses bid transformation, survey automation, and the tight integration with mobile applications.

Key Utility UVM challenges include:

Limited data to develop accurate bids and complete inspections

Gaps in communication between the office and the field

Lack of visibility into work status and budgets

Technology and user adoption

Lack of skilled labor and safety

Key Utility UVM Challenges Tree
Figure 1: Key Utility UVM Challenges

To address these challenges, utilities must commit to a budget, champion their program, and ‘partner’ with contractors and technology providers.

Start by Taking Ownership of Your Data

Bid process transformation begins with survey automation, whether that be LiDAR, Satellite, Remote Sensing, and/or hi resolution / hi definition imagery. As demonstrated during Trees & Utilities, there are many options for capturing remote sensed data, and once captured, the data is processed based on the utility’s specifications and resulting outputs. This data can automatically flow to a bid tool to create prescriptions as well as calculate costs based on accurate readings for the entire serving area. Automated LiDAR classification and feature extraction can automate the capture of:

  • Utility poles & distribution lines
  • Tree crowns & foliage volume
  • Tree inventory / location to circuit
  • Vegetation proximity to circuit
  • Buildings & obstructions

Combining LiDAR and AI algorithms will short-cut data acquisition and processing times and can include:

  • Work types—climbing, mechanical, mowing, spraying, and tree removals
  • Tree species & health
  • Tree species that cause the most outages
  • Customer permissioning / refusals
  • Planning process automation (reduce pre-inspections)
  • Condition-based Veg Management (vs cycle-based)

Circuit Prioritization & Off-cycle Work

Automating UVM inspection improves bid package accuracy, automates prescriptions, and advances survey automation in lieu of ‘boots-on-the-ground’ inspections. Tight integration with mobile GIS-based tools streamlines the work assignment to crews, improves the accuracy of maintenance work, and provides direct insight for stakeholders and work groups.

As the new veg cycle turns over, automation enables the utility to determine deltas for maintenance in subsequent years and helps move the utility to condition-based inspections and management. By replacing the traditional veg management cycles with condition-based remediation, utilities benefit from predictable budgets and improved work management.

How Does it Work?

For distribution, a grid of the service territory is set up before LiDAR and imagery acquisition. The data is acquired and transferred to the cloud for classification and feature extraction (AI models are applied at this stage.) Recent advances in cloud computing have made it easier for utilities to interact with and manage large LiDAR and imagery data sets. Veg encroachments and work tasks are ‘operationalized’ by automating work orders for each specific work type (bucket, climbing, mechanical, herbicide, mowing, and tree growth regulators or TGRs). Work orders flow to the mobile app for work tracking and completion as well as auditing. Throughout the process, operational insights are shared through dashboards and analytics for real-time insight.

Automated Survey Workflow
Figure 2: Automated Survey – End-to-End Solution

LiDAR and other hi-res imagery solutions provide a representation of all overhead lines and structures in correlation with required work activity. This model is referred to as a ‘Digital Twin.’ Without GIS integration and spatial capabilities, utilities struggle with multiple data sources or records, resulting in poor information, duplication of effort, and miscommunication. Relying too heavily on contractors can also result in a lack of access to vegetation data. GIS empowers the utility to own its historic work records, promote contract flexibility, and take control from start to finish. Others within the utility (outside the vegetation group) with a ‘need to know’ can easily access the GIS-based vegetation layers as a reference for other work, like engineering and planning.

GIS-based mobile data collection feeds operational dashboards, improving communication between work groups, contractors, and customers. For example, when customers refuse a trim or removal, a glance at the dashboard enables managers to quickly resolve customer concerns while the contractor is still on premise. This accessibility saves the utility lost time and rework as well as helps ensure compliance.

What’s more, when information derived from the veg program is tied to reliability information, such as SCADA, AMI, and feeder performance, the utility can prioritize circuits to reduce veg-caused outages.  This in turn leads to more predictable budgeting and improved work management.

The Benefits of Thinking Big and Starting Small

While there are many ways to plan and execute a digital transformation, by first developing the big picture through the roadmap exercise and defining the business case and then starting with a small proof of concept (PoC), the odds for project success greatly improve.

To form the business case, consider these questions:

How do we effectively make the business case for VM automation in the organization?

Who are the right decision-makers and champions within the organization?

What data and information are most valuable when making the business case?

What data, information, and/or resources are available to support the business case?

What additional data, information, or resources are needed to make the business case?

Is there a champion in the veg management organization? 

Is there adequate executive support for long range program advancement and success?

What are the pricing options for inspections and maintenance work (unit, T&E, and lump sum)?

How do we manage vendor scope control and auditing work?

How can we work with supply chain on the big picture thinking to achieve our long-term vision?

Going digital and implementing end-to-end automation is a daunting task. However, the transformation can be achieved through an agile, iterative approach. Thinking big and starting small builds confidence early in the design process. Instead of taking the ‘big bang’ approach and force-fitting an overly complex solution, a PoC allows a small group of subject matter experts to quickly begin the design and test the minimal viable product. If at first the solution does not work as expected, the team can refine, and sometimes, completely rework the PoC to find the right solution. Many people misunderstand the purpose of a PoC. Conceptual designs rarely function in the field; however, with bite-sized solutioning, early design fails are simply part of the process. Take the time to pivot, re-design, and get it right. 

The utility landscape has seen false starts and failures to embrace automation. The reasons are many:

  • A lack of a champion at the utility
  • Over-engineered field apps (everything but the kitchen sink)
  • Selecting technology that was proven elsewhere in the utility but that is unsuitable for UVM
  • Giving complete control of process and data to 3rd party contractors
  • Lack of a budget for ongoing support
  • Lack of support by I.T. or GIS
  • Building an in-house solution with the wrong experts
  • Turnover of key team players

There is no substitute for a champion and a qualified team supported by utility leadership to ensure success.

Overall, taking an automated and digital approach to bid process management delivers measurable results compared to ‘boots-on-the-ground’ inspections. The utility can expect at least 35% savings in the second year through:

  • Accurate bids from 3rd party contractors
  • Savings on labor and improved safety
  • Improvements in streamlined work planning
  • Reduction in back-office manual work
  • Field productivity 

Tying it All Together with an End-to-End GIS-based Solution

Moving to a completely digital end-to-end UVM solution provides the utility full transparency into the veg management program. The GIS is at the heart of the program, and with the right mobile tools, delivers program visualization, work monitoring and tracking, reference to asset layers, a vegetation inventory, accuracy of work, and compliance reporting. GIS-based tools, together with survey automation, can empower bid process overhaul and the end-to-end digital management program utilities wish to achieve.

Contact us or connect with Karen on LinkedIn to learn how we can help you solution your utility vegetation management program.