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Tech and trees: 3 startups using AI to prevent wildfires by targeting utilities and vegetation

trees and power lines against a dark sky
Image Credit: Samuel Jerónimo // Unsplash

In dendrology, the study of trees, the overstory refers to the roof of the forest: the uppermost layer of foliage at the very top of the canopies. But for a startup of the same name based out of Boston and Amsterdam, it means going even higher than the canopy: past the treetops and into space.

Overstory is an AI-powered satellite vegetation intelligence platform that builds technology aiming to mitigate wildfires, protect biodiversity, and reduce power outages. The company just raised $14 million in Series A funding to expand its reach, and it's not the only one leveraging AI to tackle the root causes of wildfires and branch out to utilities.

To carry out its mission, Overstory has partnered with over 40 electric utilities – big and small — across Europe, Brazil, and Canada, including 4 of the top 10 utilities in the United States. One of its case studies is Holy Cross Energy, an electric utility company in Western Colorado, that needed to grow its wildfire plan. Transitioning from what the company refers to as “cycle-based” to “risk-based” vegetation management, the satellite intelligence allows the utility company to make better decisions about where and when it is and isn’t going to trim.

This method identifies “hazard trees,” overhang, and species under threat like aspens and cottonwoods, reducing wildfires, as well as costs by allowing the company to not overdo trimming, and prioritizing protecting threatened tree species.

In addition to causing wildfires, trees falling on powerlines and other electricity equipment result in power outages. Coupled with wildfires – which are only increasing in intensity and amount due to climate change – the two are a deadly combination. However, one utility, Delaware Electric Cooperative, saw a 14% projected decrease in average system interruption with Overstory’s platform.

According to the company, to date, it has monitored over 2 million acres of land and protected $6 billion of utility assets. With $14 million in funding, it aims to build on this number, expand its team, and *knock on wood* prevent even more wildfires.

Led by B Capital, the round also welcomed The Nature Conservancy to the company’s collective of climate-minded investors, and saw participation from Convective Capital, Semapa Next, Bentley iTwin Ventures, Pale Blue Dot, CapitalT, Moxxie Ventures, and Overwater Ventures.

Overstory isn’t alone in its innovative approach to wildfire mitigation. Another company, Gridware, is using AI to inspect powerlines 6,000 times per second.

According to the company, more than two-thirds of the distribution of grid infrastructure is already halfway through its viable lifespan, and utilities are going to have to contend with the challenges of upgrading, from inevitable inflation to supply chain shortages to soaring energy prices. Now add the increased possibility of wildfires to aging grid infrastructure.

That’s why Gridware is building tech that, it says, addresses these challenges by monitoring the infrastructure to detect hazards, like trees on powerlines and pole rot, and prevent them from turning into full-scale, fiery disasters, thus, making the grid more reliable and wildfire resistant.

This is how it works: Gridware sells devices that seamlessly attach to security boxes, giving utilities intel into the condition of wires, poles, and other parts of the structures our electricity comes from. With this information, the utilities can hopefully act a lot quicker than they would with manual routine inspection.

Back in June, the company raised $10.5 million in a seed extension funding round led by Fifty Years and Lowercarbon Capital, bringing its funding for that round to $18.8 million.

Aside from wildfires growing tenfold in the last three decades, the Department of Energy estimates that unforeseen outages cost the U.S. economy $150 billion annually. However, the department says modernization is key to minimizing the impact.

"This is personal for us,” Seth Bannon, a founding partner at Fifty Years said in a statement about the investment. “Not long ago the San Francisco sky was orange due to forest fires and we've now seen the same thing happen in NYC. Gridware is helping ensure that never happens again."

"Over the last couple years, Gridware has shown they can prevent forest fires, make the grid more resilient and save utilities money,” he said.

Another company using AI to help utilities manage the risks of wildfires and storms is AiDash, a startup that, like Overstory, is going beyond the tree canopy to deliver satellite imagery and vegetation intelligence, launching its vegetation intelligence system in September.

But one thing that AiDash is doing a bit differently is its data fusion, a multi-data approach that combines its own satellite-source data with utility and third-party data, whether it be from satellites or helicopters, or aerial imagery from drones, to help prioritize vegetation management and, according to the company make utilities more climate resilient.

“As extreme weather intensifies, utilities are facing more challenges with grid resiliency, fixed cycle manual inspections, and flat-to-declining budgets,” Abhishek Singh, co-founder and CEO of AiDash said in a statement, announcing its new management system last month. But, an all-in-one software solution, he thinks, could be the fix.

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