Danish company Scopito has gone from a drone hardware developer and inspection operator to a purely software solution provider. Diarmaid Williams finds out how it made this transition

Scopito’s origins in drone inspection have given it a great understanding of the needs of utilities, and have helped the Danish company provide a highly effective software solution for the power market.

The company’s 100 per cent Cloud-based software enables backup of all images captured during drone inspections, and seamless sharing of images and reports with customers, repair crews and infrastructure specialists. It’s a tailored approach, with the software also allowing role assignment and rights for all client contacts.

When chief executive and founder Ken Falk started the company, he was excited about the possibilities of drones operating in the utility space and concentrated efforts on putting their technology at the service of power line operators. Even though it didn’t work out quite as he originally envisaged, Falk was to learn a great deal about the issues facing grid operators.

“When I started out and quit my old job, I basically knew that I wanted to do something in drones but wasn’t 100 per cent sure where to focus. It started out with me developing a drone four years ago, one that could fly for about an hour, with a good camera payload. It hadn’t been on the market and I thought it was the best product in the world and everyone was going to buy it. “

How utilities viewed the product was to focus minds at Scopito, and indeed change its direction of travel.

“I spoke to some utility companies and power line firms and they didn’t really care about the drone – they just wanted inspections as a service and that’s basically how we started in that business. We decided to focus only on power lines because we thought it would be very important to keep this focus and stay ahead of competition.

“We were quite fortunate to start out with such a narrow focus on power line inspections because we got really deep into understanding the needs of these organizations.”

One such organization was Denmark’s biggest grid operator, Energienet, and a mutually beneficial relationship developed. A strong collaborative process between the two would later inform the software they developed to serve the industry.

“We learned how their workflow works so that we could make something that works effectively in their organization and with their existing systems. It has been crucial that we had that customer contact from the very beginning.” And so, in the summer of 2016, Scopito sold off the inspection business to focus solely on its software platform and making it available to operators and utilities that had the same problems the Scopito team encountered themselves when performing inspections.

Falk, a software engineer himself, is in no doubt about the benefit of having that initial, hands-on experience. “Because we focused solely on the power line inspections, I think we were quite fortunate to realize very early on that the limiting factor would probably be the software and managing your data effectively.”

The inside track knowledge gained meant an easier transition to an entirely software focus, and a more informed conversation with utility clients. Four years ago the use of drones in the utility space was largely virgin territory, but those clients soon saw the value at hand. The greater challenge of effectively managing all of the data captured would soon also become apparent.

“They saw the image quality was much better than anything else, they appreciated our focus and they started ordering inspections. We were delivering 5000 to 10,0000 images, normally for small inspections, and they were sitting with a picture viewer and copy-pasting images to Power Point slides. So, we really didn’t need to explain the need for the system – they were very aware that this wasn’t a scalable way to do things.”

Scopito’s offering is intuitive and easy to use. Take, for example, one recent project which involved surveying 300 metres of power line, a task that produced around 5500 images. Operators upload the data and automatically put it in the system with GPS locations. Mapping can be used to filter that data. A particular pylon, for example, will have changing thumbnail views and it’s easy to read the accompanying relevant data.

“Load speed is also important, Falk says. “In the old way you might have to wait five seconds for an image to load, which isn’t workable when there are potentially so many to view.

“The client can perform analysis themselves and we also offer to do pre-screening, or what we call downsizing, of the images. They educate us on what to look for in terms of issues and they can request that we just show them the relevant ones. Instead of the 5500 images, it would typically be refined to 5–10 per cent which experts need to go through.”

Scopito refers to the process as facilitating ‘the right expertise at the right time’.

“They can spend the time where their resources are needed, so persons whose knowledge is limited can spend time looking through 90 per cent of the images and people with higher expertise may only have to look through 5–10 per cent of the images.”

“We believe this is what artificial intelligence will do as well: take the big workload off so that the experts can make their evaluations.”

Once faults on power lines, for example, are identified, images are annotated, and the viewer can also see what has previously been annotated, with data on corrosion or short circuit incidents. Falk pinpoints a case where a short circuit had occurred but the use of traditional inspections over a seven-year period had failed to uncover the culprit damage. The very first use of a drone immediately led to discovery.

Reporting is also an essential aspect to the service and those automatically generated PDF reports provide comprehensive views, with all imagery and annotated detail together.

“In the beginning we didn’t have the report generation option and we just added it as a basic feature before realizing it’s probably the most important aspect of the product – but we didn’t know that until we started getting closer to our customers. We are getting requests from clients now for more customized reporting. At the moment it’s still quite generic, though there is scope for some customization, particularly with thermal district heat network inspections (leak analysis etc) – the workflow is a bit different there.”

Falk says that although it’s commonly held that outage prevention is the chief means of reducing costs associated with drone usage, the main gains, in terms of savings on man-hours, equipment and spare parts, are to be found elsewhere.

“The biggest cost saving is not what we call the direct cost savings – cost in turning off the power, getting a person to climb or getting a crane up there. There still needs to be a good business case to send up the drones, and it usually is cheaper, but by far the largest cost savings occur when you do your maintenance and repair planning.”

One such example involved an operator who sent a drone up to check repairs performed earlier, then discovered fresh issues, in this case a need to change insulators that had rusted.

“Instead of having two operations, they could do it in one, and that saved a lot of time because they need to mobilize the people and shut off the power every time. When they decided to change the insulators, they didn’t have exact data about what brackets and tools they needed, and normally they would have a person climb the pylon again before they did the maintenance. Now they could basically take up the inventory and say, ‘Well, it’s this kind of insulator or these kinds of brackets we need’.”

While the rapidly evolving power system is seeing more and more integration of distributed energy such as microgrids, there is still great development in transmission lines, which is where Scopito puts much of its resources.

“There is a lot of renewable energy being generated around the coastlines and in Germany, for example, it’s needed to get to the industrial areas in the middle and south. They are planning 20,000 km of new transmission lines in the next five years, so I think the market is expanding.”

Scopito may have indirectly found its focus moving from hardware to software in its beginnings, but there is great certainty in how its management wants to see the company progress.

”We have a clear strategy towards automation,” says Falk. “Today it’s still a manual process to analyze images. We see a lot of websites at present that claim to have automation, but with all the customers we speak to, no one has a working system yet. We are not there yet, but our strategy is very clear. In drone analysis you annotate all the faults, and this is basically the recipe for enabling artificial intelligence and algorithms.”