One of our era’s prevailing fears is that big data and automation will kill jobs, churning the fabric of society. Some argue we’re feeling the ripples already, with the splintering of old political systems as a foretaste of bigger, more sinister changes to come.

The real picture is more complicated. The idea that automation will consign error-prone humans to the trash can has yet to transpire the way doomsayers predict. For sure, some jobs will go, but automation can add others and compliment yet more, empowering professions constrained by limits they once didn’t even conceptualize.

There’s no better example than in an industry hardly talked about in everyday life — powerline maintenance — where Sharper Shape’s suite of software tools powering drones and helicopter-mounted cameras is enabling highly specialized technicians to go beyond their former limits, while requiring less management.

Behind Every Little Light Bulb

You wouldn’t think it, but powerlines take a battering. Criss-crossing continents and stretching over remote farmland and thick forest, reams of cable and innumerable pylons stand out in the open, where rain and wind do their wicked work. Behind our powered homes and lit city streets lie maintenance firms that ensure every powerline is in order.

Traditional powerline maintenance sounds like something out of a child’s dream. Inspectors jump into helicopters to examine the lines, peering out the side with a pair of binoculars and taking notes. Others would zoom underneath the cables on a quad bike, or trudge laboriously on foot.

“The problem with this is that it’s slow and unreliable,” says Toni Suni, a product designer at DK&A’s Helsinki office. Toni was among the first of DK&A’s multiple offices to work with Sharper Shape on tightening up their the process. “It was not a very good method,” he adds, explaining that helicopters could never get too close and that the system was riddled with human error.

Sharper Shape’s solution, to its credit, also sounds like something from a dreamworld: Building a “massive drone full of equipment sensors,” in Toni’s words, that at the push of a button takes off and flies along the lines all by itself, using sensors and cameras to gather data.

Sharper Shape

Sharper Shape creates purpose-built sensor systems, cloud-based analysis and applications for the utility asset inspections. Company’s core expertise is the sensors and automated analysis software for inspections – making it safe, fast and affordable.

A Journalistic Method

Toni, starting almost from scratch and knowing little about powerlines, adopted an almost journalistic method of figuring out how to help Sharper Shape. The pioneering startup brought him on to find new ways to harness all of their data and better expose it.

“I just started to interview all the employees — everyone — asking like, what are they trying to do? What are your goals?”

“I used this method, I don’t even know if there’s a name for this,” he continues, “but what I started to do is that every time I had a discussion with them, I marked down topics and started to map things … I slowly started to build a set of things that are connected to each other.”

His journalistic approach perhaps explains the finely calibrated and all-encompassing nature of the software Toni designed. Sharper Shape now wields tools attuned to the specific needs of powerline workers.

At DK&A's Wrocław office, Mateusz Szlosek hunkers down in a bean bag chair as he develops an iOS app for sending commands to Sharper Shape's drone. Szlosek discusses his work with Sharper Shape in Chaos Engineer article (see below).

Meeting Every Need

At the simplest end, one app allows companies to command drones to soar out over the lines at the touch of a button, and view and analyze the data, all under one roof. The flying robots can tell if a tree is in danger of tipping over onto a powerline, for example, with greater speed and accuracy than a helicopter team and less expense.

Powerline owners can also easily leaf through the results in a data viewer, while repair crews retrieve comprehensible outlines of where to go and what to do.

For points of nuance, however, the human eye of a trained expert is still required. Suni included a special view in the app called Inspector. Inspector is for so-called power users whose task it is to mine images taken by drones for potential issues with lines or poles — a highly skilled job for which every second is critical.

“No matter how long it takes, they get the same payment,” Toni explains, of the contracted powerline inspectors. “So the faster they can do it, the better,” he adds.

Speed requires a certain dexterity, and Toni, true to his gamer roots, imported about 20 standard hotkeys from first-person shooters to confer inspectors with the ability to zoom in or out of images, or move on to the next one, quickly. Complicated, but necessary.

”Inspector didn’t need to be user-friendly, it needed to be effective,” Toni says. “You could think of it as a Photoshop, or 3DStudio Max, or other complicated software for professionals who use it everyday.”

OK Computer

Automation doomsayers would be put at ease if Sharper Shape’s venture into powerlines offers a model for other industries — allowing workers to perform better for more money, all the while making their bosses happier.

Downsides are few for the firms that service powerlines: lower costs, more efficient work, and ultimately, more money. Powerline companies too have a clearer picture than ever of the state of their utilities, allowing them to make better decisions.

Toni says the industry, worth tens of billions, was crying out for the kind of attention that improved everyone’s work. “I think it’s a huge thing,” he says, of the tools he designed.

What other unheard industries lie in wait?