In May, southern Ontario was hit by the sixth costliest storm in Canadian history. Nearly a million utility customers lost power, and weeks later, some rural residents in the region still couldn’t turn their lights on.
“Remote areas suffer quite a bit from utility outages,” said James Aein, CEO of Enerza, a 5G startup based in Toronto. Enerza is prototyping and patenting a robot named Boa that snakes across power lines to report back to utility companies on looming problems — and potentially prevent mass outages before they start.
Aein grew up in a family of engineers and knew early on that he wanted to follow in the same path. As he was completing his master’s degree at the University of British Columbia, he decided to focus his thesis on BC Hydro, the major utility company serving Vancouver. Aein noticed that the steps to investigate an outage often felt antiquated, especially considering how important electricity is for every sector of life.
“When an outage happens, a utility company doesn’t know where the outage is or why it happens until a customer calls,” Aein told Insider. “That leaves a five kilometer radius of where the precise power line experiencing the problem could be.”
Some of the most common causes of power outages are vegetation and encroachment. When a branch hovering near a power line is hit by a gust of wind during a storm and snags, an outage is nearly inevitable. In some Canadian provinces, like Yukon, a major culprit behind power outages are iced power lines. While utility companies do their best to de-ice them with hot steam via helicopter, they simply cannot cover the most rural lines, especially during severe weather.
This is where Aein’s invention, Boa, comes in. Boa can slither like a snake along a power line to inspect it for corrosion, ice, vegetation, or other nearby obstructions. As Boa gathers lidar data, low-latency 5G allows that information to be sent back to utility companies swiftly. From there, line-by-line maps of an electrical grid with accompanying reports on quality and surroundings are created and organized based on low, medium, and high-risk threats.
“We can detect, by the pole, where the next utility outage may come from,” Aein explained. “This wouldn’t be doable without 5G. The alternative would have been data-dumping from each robot onto a router. Routers could take days or weeks to upload the data that Boa collects. 5G is instantaneous.”
Part of the ingenuity of Boa is that instead of simply hanging on the edge of a power line, it can shift from one line to the next. The system uses machine learning to decide whether to go over, under, or around a corner or obstruction to inspect the next line.
While countries are struggling with aging electrical infrastructure, Boa doesn’t require municipalities to invest in modernizing their grids to be able to use the technology. Aein estimates that one Boa is required for every 50 kilometers of power lines and that a single Boa can monitor and report threats on up to 8,000 kilometers annually.
In January 2023, Enerza will be collaborating with an American utility company for in-field testing of the system and its 5G capabilities. Aein declined to name the utility because the arrangement is confidential at the moment.
Around the world, the pressure is rising to electrify parts of life that have historically depended on fossil fuels. Without innovation, it’s questionable whether utility grids can follow through on that demand. A proactive approach toward preventing power outages before they start could save companies, utilities, and countries around the world billions of dollars, according to Aein.
“Utilities are reactive right now instead of proactive,” he said. “That has to change.”