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Transforming the US utilities market

Through drone inspection and software - Part 1
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14 July 2021

Cyberhawk’s Marketing Manager, James Foreman, recently caught up with our Chief Operating Officer (COO), Phil Buchan, who shared his insights on how Cyberhawk’s unique offering is supporting the US utility market, as well as the growth opportunities on the horizon in the region.

James: Can you tell us a little more about your experience and role at Cyberhawk?

Phil: The majority of my work experience prior to joining Cyberhawk is in mechanical and structural engineering. I became a Chartered Engineer and worked on the design of marine structures. Back then a key part of my job was to design structures that could resist explosions. We’d often build computer models of structures and then take scale models of them to a quarry in Scotland and use explosives to assess whether the computer model was reacting the same way as the real thing. It was a pretty cool start to my career.

After that, I decided to jump at the opportunity to complete an MBA in 2008, which I was lucky enough to work towards whilst living in Singapore and Chicago. I returned to Scotland in 2010 and was interested in a role at a fast-growing start-up business. As luck would have it, Cyberhawk was looking for its first-ever employee at the time.

It was a great fit for me because I had a strong engineering background as well as an interest in helping to develop a start-up company. At the start, there were just the four of us and we got the company moving.

As a start-up, you need to do a little bit of everything, but I essentially worked as the finance director for the first four years, moving into a sales director role for a further four years before ending up in my current COO position - which is heavily focused on global strategy and overseeing the operations of the business and ensuring we have the right skills to meet our growing customer demand.

Cyberhawk has been incredibly busy in the US has secured a number of contract wins over the past year. What do the opportunities for growth look like for Cyberhawk in the US in 2021 and beyond?

The growth potential for the business is huge in North America, and this has everything to do with the scale of the opportunities.

We already cover a significant area of the UK with our drone-based inspection services and iHawk asset management software through our contracts with SSE, SP Energy Networks, Northern Ireland Electricity, and National Grid but when you consider the total area of the US is 40 times that of the UK, it really brings the scale we are talking about to life. With nearly seven million miles of transmission and distribution lines across the US, these vast distances can pose issues for electricity utility companies who must ensure their infrastructure is safe and robust.

We all know a country’s electric grid plays a vital role in keeping the power on in homes and businesses, meaning that a power outage can have major consequences. The US’s electric grid is facing critical integrity issues due to its age. For example, 70% of all US electricity transformers and transmission lines are more than 25 years old, and faulty or damaged power lines can instigate wildfires which can lead to deadly blazes, a prominent issue in parts of the US.

There is a clear need for an innovative approach to inspecting and maintaining these networks. This is not a new challenge for us, as we’ve has been supporting the power grid sector to inspect aging infrastructure since 2009 through our drone inspections and visual asset management solutions.

This year, we will continue to expand, helping electricity utility companies in the US to maintain safe and resilient power grid networks through our drone-based inspection services. This provides our customers with the next level of quality in inspection data collection and management, bringing a step change in defect identification, maintenance planning, and the tracking of remedial actions. I am confident that we will continue to see more utilities adopt this pioneering approach in the near future.

That’s really interesting, and why do you think Cyberhawk is well-positioned to support the U.S power industry meet these challenges?

Cyberhawk already has a huge amount of experience supporting the power utility industry, both in the UK, US, and beyond. As mentioned before, in the UK we have worked in this sector since 2009 and now have long-term contracts with SSE, SP Energy Networks, Northern Ireland Electricity, and National Grid.

In the US, we are working with one of the largest electric utility companies in California to ensure the stability of the state’s electric networks and reduce wildfire risks. This involves the drone inspection of around 30,000 structures being carried out this year alone.

A lot of the work in the UK has been driven by regulatory compliance. There is an ever-stringent requirement that evidence is needed to justify spending and secure regulator funding. The US is heading down a similar path, and Cyberhawk is ideally positioned to support US electric utilities.

We can fly drones to capture the highest quality imagery during inspections or take third-party drone or helicopter data and use our powerline-focused software, iHawk, to provide our customers with the analysis, enabling them to make evidence-based decisions about their networks.

And looking forward, is there anything you’re particularly excited about on the horizon for Cyberhawk?

We’re already seeing huge demand for our services in the states, and we expect this to grow in line with the continued need to maintain aging power infrastructure.

As I mentioned, last year we announced a contract with a major California-based electricity utility for the provision of UAV services. The scope of work includes thousands of UAV inspections of lattice steel and wood electricity transmission structures that are part of the state’s critical electricity network. We’re really looking forward to progressing the partnership this year and into the future in order to support the customer’s critical wildfire prevention and reliability campaign.

Continuing to roll out our industry-leading software, iHawk, to more customers and projects, as well as making advancements to the technology, will be key themes for the company looking ahead. The software has already transformed a number of complex projects globally. A stand-out example of this was in 2017 when Shell selected iHawk as the foundation digital tool for managing the construction of a mega-scale petrochemicals manufacturing plant near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. The project’s scale was impressive with 300 miles of pipe, over 1,600 items of manufactured equipment, and 294 pre-assembled modules.

The iHawk portal allows more than 1,000 individual users per month to access the latest information on site and use it as a baseline for decision-making in the office, in the field on mobile devices, and remotely. On-site, this was done using 45 interactive, touch-enabled screens that we deployed around the construction site and in offices, meeting rooms, and collaboration areas. Giving everyone on the team direct, on-the-spot access to the portal means iHawk became an integral part of all planning and coordination meetings on the project.

The success of this project has led to a global framework agreement with Shell and the software being rolled out to digitize all of Shell’s global assets.

Furthermore, I’m personally really excited to continue to grow and develop our skilled and passionate team here at Cyberhawk. To date, we have supported the next generation of engineers, drone pilots, project managers, and software developers, and we will continue to bring fresh talent into the company who are keen to learn and believe in our business and culture.

The past 12 months have been tough for many who may have lost jobs or found themselves unable to even get a foot on the career ladder due to the pandemic and knock-on effect on the economy, so it feels great that Cyberhawk has been able to continue to recruit during this time and is in a position to continue to offer talented, hardworking people opportunities.

I take an active role in the interviewing process which I enjoy and will continue. It has been encouraging to see the growing trend of candidates, whether they are graduates fresh out of college or university or those with experience under their belts but want a fresh challenge, take an interest in our sustainability and corporate social responsibility including our environmental credentials. This is something that is already embedded into our culture and we, as a business and personally, believe this really matters.