How AI Optimizes Risk Mitigation And Remote Management Opportunities With Christopher Beaufait
The possible applications of AI in optimizing business processes only seem to grow as time goes by. In this episode, Christopher Beaufait chats with host Chad Burmeister about how AI can better manage utilities in terms of assets and even vegetation. Christopher is the President and CEO of Sharper Shape Inc., a leading innovator in remote utility inspection services. In this episode, he details how AI can optimize business processes and mitigate infrastructure-related risks. He talks about how they create digital twins and how it improves productivity and elevates the value of human jobs.
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How AI Optimizes Risk Mitigation And Remote Management Opportunities With Christopher Beaufait
I've got someone with me with the same initials so that's pretty cool. I've seemed to find whenever I talk to someone with the CB initials, it becomes good luck. We'll finish the day out here on a high load. Chris Beaufait is with a company called Sharper Shape. They've been around since 2013 but the technology has been developed even before that. I believe it came out of Finland originally. What I heard from Chris is that they help companies create a digital twin. We're going to talk to you about what that all means and how AI plays in all of that space. I'm very intrigued. Chris, welcome to the show.
Thank you, Chad. It's a pleasure to be here.
I love having these conversations, whether it's biotech, transportation or what we're talking about here, aerial photography, converting it to digital, making a secondary. Sometimes I feel like we're living in a secondary world as it is already so maybe you're making the third. I like to help our audience get to know you by getting to know your personal background. Where were you raised? What did you like when you were a kid? Help us connect the dots between what were you passionate about then to how did you get from then to now? How did those dots connect?
If you go back far enough, when you talk about me being a young child, I grew up in the Indiana-Kentucky area. Back then, if you ask me at my youngest age what did I want to do? I wanted to be an astronaut. I ultimately didn't end there. I ended up starting my career in the military. I started as an enlisted man in the US Navy. I was a mechanic. I had a chance to go to the US Naval Academy. That's where it starts to connect to some of the things I do. I got my degree in Systems Engineering. I focused on robotics and what we called Astrodynamics, which is Orbital Mechanics.
Also in my degree, we focused on things like artificial intelligence and neural networks. A lot of these things were being done scarily enough decades ago. Going all the way back and how we ended up to where we are now, I've always had that interest in software, AI and robotics. I served in the submarine force after graduation from the Naval Academy. I moved on to General Electric. I spent sixteen years at GE. I did everything from quality engineering to mergers and acquisitions to businesses there. Both of the businesses that I was running were in the aviation space. I left that. I joined the renewable energy space, a company called Vestas.
Vestas is a Danish wind turbine company and the largest in the world. It's just not a name that most people are familiar with. I ran Asia-Pacific for them. In 2017, I decided I wanted to jump into the startup world. I did in a big way. Sharper Shape is the second startup I've worked for and the fifth startup I've been involved in. I wanted to apply those technologies from years ago in my education to make the world a little bit better place. That's what we're doing.
Driving down in Colorado on Santa Fe, there's a train track. I've seen at times these long, big, huge blades. Those are probably Vestas blades.
The two largest wind turbine companies in the United States are both Vestas and GE. I guarantee it was probably one of those two.
AI raises the value of the jobs that you have and further enhances the team that you have.
I like to ask the question about how is AI used in your product or service? Give us an idea of the types of projects you're engaged in and then how does AI play a role?
To step back, what does Sharper Shape do? We have been focused pretty much from our start on the utility sector. When you start to think about transmission and distribution, we're talking about large areas. There are more than 7 million miles of transmission and distribution in the United States. What we're trying to figure out and have been doing is, how do you go out and collect the right type of information to create that digital twin? We use a mix of helicopters and drones. We can also use fixed-wing aircraft. We can even use satellite information. We pull all that information into a system, which we call our Sharper CORE platform. Inside that platform, we have multiple ways in which we use AI.
One of the first ways that we use AI is when you do a LiDAR data collection, the first thing you have to do is you have to classify all of that information. We use AI and automation tools to classify that. Traditionally, that's been very manual. Once we've got the classified data into our system, we'll also use that AI to start looking at the types of insights. Are there vegetation management issues? Wildfire, particularly in the time of drought that we're dealing with is a big issue. A couple of stats that may be interesting to the readers is somewhere between 86% and 88% of all wildfires in the United States are human-caused, not lightening and those things that people think about. Of that amount, depending on what state you're in, but a number of states will say that that number can be as high as 70% of those human-caused are caused by vegetation coming in contact with electrical wires or electrical componentry.
When you start to look at that risk, how do you capture that risk? We use AI to start looking at how many trees are within proximity that could start a fire. We can be looking at millions of trees and calculating that. We use AI for that. The last bit where we use AI is ultimately a lot of more mature industries in the United States are facing worker shortage issues in the future. How do you start to augment the workforce using AI so that you can help the limited resources you have prioritized? What do I mean by that? If we can have the AI go in and say, "These are the components and the defects on those components,” and help that be prioritized. Now a utility can look at how they better manage their workflow to take care of those issues and manage risk across very large areas.
I heard from a reliable source speaking of utilities about the Texas situation that they were within 120 seconds of losing power for hundreds of thousands of homes for 12 to 14 weeks. She used to be in that business. She said seven million people moved in over the last period of time. The infrastructure wasn't built to handle that kind of load. Are you familiar with any of that? Had your company looked into any of the stuff going on in Texas?
We have done some work in Texas. Our work in Texas has been more on the emergency response side. Once you know the state of your assets and let's say a hurricane comes through, you want to very quickly be able to go in and assess. We do that type of work as well. That's been the work that we've done in the Texas area. Specifically, if you take the US grid and you look at it, more than 70% of the grid in the United States is greater than 25 years old. When you look at those types of numbers, when you step back and you think about the transmission and distribution grid, it's nearly maybe more so than 100 years old in some ways.
When the grid was established, this was well before we had the computers or the digital twin technologies that we have now. Going out and capturing this large scale, why does that matter? What matters is if you think this grid was developed at a time when renewable energy wasn't where it is like we talked about with GE and Vestas, when you look at folks like Elon Musk creating Tesla and the electric vehicles, the amount of load is increasing, the reality is you have a power source, which is different than what was originally anticipated. You have loads going up and then you have many people moving into population centers like seven million people in Texas as you described. All of those put a significant burden on the grid.
That's exactly what we're trying to help relieve. By going out, collecting and understanding, you can start to figure out what we need to do. There are multiple complicating factors but one of the big complicating factors is as you look at climate change, you look at the West Coast, with the temperatures that we're seeing and this drought are expected to be worse than the last 1,200 years and you factor that into the types of fires we've had even in the years before this drought, you realize there's a very big challenge that we have ahead of us. You also look at what President Biden and the administration is trying to do with investing further in the grid. We should step back and baseline that. Look at how do we do it safely and grow the grid, loads and populations in the safest way possible. That's where we focus.
If AI didn't exist and you had to hire people to do these jobs of looking at all the data, would it even be possible or would you need to hire? I'm sure you've looked on man-years or person-years. It would be thousands of years, I would think.
It would be a serious challenge. This is public information put out by PG&E themselves to their regulators so you can find these documents. One of the things that they highlighted is they did a very big data collection back in 2018, 2019 and 2020. They collected over 25,000 miles. In those 25,000 miles, they had 5.3 million trees within risk areas. Even thinking about counting 5.3 million trees, you get an idea of the scale of the problem that we have to work with.
I remember as a kid, one teacher one year said in high school, "If you could write from one to one million on paper, you'll get an A and you don't have to do any of your homework." Me being a pretty Math astute person, I did the math on that. I'm like, "I wrote 1 to maybe 100." I did the math backwards and said, "How much time is it going to take me?" There were kids who got to probably 10,000 and I'm like, "You got to figure that stuff."
This is the type of scale that we're talking about. Without AI, how do you truly identify those types of risks? That's what we're very focused on.
I like to point these things out. There are frontline managers, even directors, VPs and let's go on the sales side of technology companies, almost any industry that say the elephant in the room is, "How much my team's going to be left after this gutting of AI coming in and replacing all the jobs?" We saw what the internet did to that. It added jobs. The predictions I'm hearing are 5X more impact than the internet, 10X more impact exponentially because there's so much you can do. It lets you go after new markets and create companies as you would never have even had. You lose twenty of those frontline cold caller jobs but you've added 100 jobs that work for Sharper Shape. What are your thoughts on the elephant in the room? Will people lose their jobs or does it create new opportunities?
I believe it creates new opportunities. When I jumped into the startup world, the two things that I've been focused on in a lot of ways is human augmentation. Whether that was at Sarcos Robotics, which is where I was before Sharper Shape or whether you look at what we're applying here at Sharper Shape, in a lot of ways, how do you augment the performance of the people that you already have? What people a lot of times don't understand what AI now is it has done very well and enhanced capabilities, and in some cases, taken away some jobs like in the financial sector where everything is done in a certain exact way. Once you start to get outside of what's happening inside your computer and start to marry that with the real world, when you bridge the digital and the physical, which is effectively what we're doing with the digital twin, there are many decisions, times, prioritization has to be made.
If you have 5.3 million trees that you have to deal with and you only have a workforce of, I don't even know what the vegetation management workforce sizes are, but let's say it was something huge like 10,000 people. How do 10,000 people tackle 5.3 million trees? At the end of the day, what the AI is doing is helping the person prioritize because you still need a person that is doing the final decision. You still need people that are going to go out and service those trees, reduce and manage that risk. The other piece of that is if you start to think about the quality of the job, would you rather be the decision-maker or dispatching and doing the maintenance or be somebody out there trying to count 5.3 million trees? It's the level of the job and the satisfaction that somebody can have. I'm a believer that AI raises the value of the jobs that you have and further enhances the team that you have. That's my belief.
The parallel there is there's an AI that we purchased from a company that spent eighteen months building it. It looks at all of the interconnectivity between me and my prospects so that instead of going directly to the prospect, I go to the intermediary, "Chris, we talked on a webinar. I see you're connected to the CEO of GE. Would you mind making an intro?" The great BDRs, which are maybe 2% per 10% are doing that but they're doing it manually. The rest of the team isn't ever even doing any of that. If you can say, "Instead of a BDR doing that 2 or 3 times a day, what if you could have the AI help every single AE or BDR do that 20 to 30 times a day to go find out who the intermediaries are to ask for warm introductions?" It's a simple twist of reality but you wouldn't have been able to do that without AI. There are dozens of those types of opportunities, hundreds and thousands that are sitting there, ripe for people to solve.
AI allows people to focus on things that are going to matter the most.
It's the ability to allow a single person to have that much more of an impact. In the world we live in, every company has to think about how they compete to win, continue to grow their revenues, and be ideally the best player in their industry. Having this enhancement coming from AI to make their existing workforce that much more productive and insightful about what's happening in the markets, that's what I believe AI makes.
They're more apt to stay longer term because they're being challenged and they're doing part of the job that keeps the brain firing on all cylinders. If a computer can do it, why would you want to do it? Let the computer do what the computer does. If you think of a world 5 to 10 years from now, how does it look differently? So much has changed in the last few years and it seems to be accelerating at a faster clip than ever before.
In a lot of ways, there are a lot of discussions about when do we get to Artificial General Intelligence, AGI? The reality is that's probably still 40 years away. If you think about us getting up in the morning, fixing our breakfast, getting in our car, getting to work, sitting down at our desk, AI couldn't do that now. AGI is quite some ways away, but when you start to talk about what our computer is good at, they're good at solving specific compute-type problems. If it's a compute-type problem, it has some logical rationale associated with it. Many times for us, that's the road stuff that we don't necessarily like to do. If you have to do the same thing over and over again, it becomes pretty boring.
How do you apply that to more parts of your job so that the part of the job that the humans are doing is the highest value add? We're going to see more of that. In our case, most utilities around the world when they look at doing these types of inspections, maybe with the current footprint they can get somewhere between ten and if they're doing 1/3 of their assets every single year, but what happens if the asset that might have been at risk for fire is in the other 2/3 or the other 90%? You can almost take this into any other sector as well. What it allows them to do in that time is to focus on the things that are going to matter the most. We're going to see much better prioritization over the next 5 to 10 years utilizing AI tools so that when we do apply the human intellect and the human capital, it's done in a much more value-added way. That's the journey we're on.
The other journey that we're on is in a lot of ways, you mentioned about the internet. As this network of digital twins continues to grow, as more of this data is made available, we're going to have insights that others never thought possible. You look at the early days of Google Maps as an example. It's how you find your restaurants, get around traffic, how most people show up to wherever they got to be on time but when it started, it was a map. You start to look at all of these places where the AI is being applied and bringing that context between computer and human. We're at the start of a tremendous growth cycle in terms of insights and the ability for humans to utilize those insights.
I had a smart gentleman on the call. He said 10,000 people turn 65 every day. Of that batch, 70% of them need some kind of supervision. Probably the older you get, the more supervision you need. With these 65-year-olds, I can start to see that tunnel light up down there in the future. They don't want to have a video camera in every room of their house if they fell. They pay $67,000 a year on average for a person to work 40 hours a week and monitor their behaviors if they fell. They have these things like the wristband if you fell but that doesn't always work. Similarly, these people, just like the counting trees concept, if they can only manage 2 to 3 households with that 40-hour week and they're working their butt off, they're probably working 80 hours, triple time. If they suit up the house with this technology and they've done it 1.2 million times already, I was like, "All of us have a dream to impact one million lives. You've already done 1.2. That's awesome."
Just like when you go through the TSA scanner and it doesn't take the video of you, it shows that you have a little red dot on your upper shoulders. The same thing can go in your house. That one person can manage a bigger, wider area. Even the family can be all notified at the same time. The neighbor could be on the notification. As humans become endpoints on the system, that begs another question, "Do I want to be an endpoint on a system?" We already are. It's the hidden secret in all of it.
The other piece of that, whether you look at it on the cloud, on-premise type of cloud or the edge, the reality is there's AI that can be applied in every one of those. Unfortunately, 65 is not that far around the corner for me. How do I get comfortable with the fact that if I want full-time monitoring in my house, do I want everything going? Quite frankly, I might have AI on the edge that's only passing critical information to those other areas upstream. Ultimately, we're going to see lots of things like that because there are ways to even use AI to help protect privacy but what do we care about if there's a problem at our house and the AI can detect that. Maybe I left the stove on and I'm quite ways away but not that far away. Sometimes I still leave the stove on. We all make these little mistakes. Those are the things that you would like to have an alarm for somewhere. Particularly the older we get and the more forgetful we get.
This is a fascinating conversation. I appreciate that you invest some time. I don't know how many utility people are reading but you never do know. How would they reach out to you, Chris, if they have a curiosity on what this could do for their business?
Probably the easiest and best way is to go to SharperShape.com. In there, we have contact information. We also have a lot of sites, doing our simple chatbot, which can grab their information and put them directly in contact with someone very quickly. That's probably the easiest way to remember. Through that, I'm happy to talk with anyone. My information is pretty available there. I'm active even on things like LinkedIn. They should reach out. We'd love to talk with them.
I love the website. I've had it playing in the background the whole time and the chopper that keeps flying around. I keep thinking that's one day in history. If we've been through that many days, time keeps flying. Sometimes it goes around the world that fast.
The graphics are a collaboration. I write that myself. The other piece that you look at and you talk about scale. You look at how fast these things can change. A few years ago, we were just starting out and three years later, we've gotten to the point where we've collected nearly 40,000 linear miles of data over one million structures. Quite frankly, we're dealing with over 5 petabytes worth of data and given what you focus on. In reality, you think about a small company like us being able to do that much in three years. When you get ten companies like us across many different industries, that's what's going to happen.
You paste it all together and you've got a mind map of everything going on in the world. That's fabulous. Chris Beaufait, CEO of Sharper Shape, it's a fabulous conversation. Thanks for being on the show, Chris.
It's a pleasure, Chad. Thank you.
About Chris Beaufait
Global leader passionate about building technology focused businesses that delight customers and reward investors and employees.
Delivered exceptional results in domestic, international, multicultural, multinational corporations and fast moving technology start-ups. Business builder with technology, leadership, M&A and board experience.
As COO, together with Delta Air Lines, spearheaded Sarcos' efforts for the successful unveiling of the world's first full body powered (energetically autonomous) exoskeletons at CES 2020. Assisted with capital raising activities, ensuring foundation for commercial launch of its exoskeleton robotics business (in 2021).
Rebuilt Vestas' Asia Pacific business, delivering triple digit growth in orders and revenue. Opened new renewable energy markets across Asia.
While at GE, led or supported over $100B of industry changing acquisitions, divestitures and partnerships, transforming entire companies and industries. Helped launch the commercial aerospace industry in China. Identified and delivered technology behind GE's Minds & Machines and Digital platform business.
Served country as a nuclear submarine officer. Unyielding passion to win; professional race car driver and team co-owner.