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Japan's ubiquitous utility poles find new role as AI beacons

From self-driving support to data gatherers, structures seen as new revenue source

An inspector for Kansai Transmission and Distribution scans a utility pole for wear and tear. The collected data is used to forecast when the poles should be refurbished.

OSAKA -- A bus nears an intersection with no traffic signal amid poor visibility, its driver unable to see an oncoming car until it may be too late to avoid a crash.

But the driver has another pair of eyes watching the road from above, like a bird on a wire.

The unusual helping hand comes in the form of ubiquitous utility poles equipped with sensors along countless streets across Japan, courtesy of Kansai Electric Power.

Japan's second-largest power company envisions turning its 2.7 million utility poles into a network ready to alert self-driving vehicles to other cars or pedestrians on the road.

The initiative has materialized more than a year after Kansai Electric Power spun off its transmission and distribution business as a subsidiary, which now faces the challenge of finding new revenue sources.

Kansai Transmission and Distribution, working with five other companies including electronics supplier Kyocera, conducted trials of the sensors earlier this year in Himeji, a city famed for its giant feudal castle that is located west of Osaka. As the bus approached the intersection, the utility pole detected cars, pedestrians and cyclists moving in the vicinity and relayed data on their speed and direction to the bus.

Equipment on the bus allows it to quickly parse this information to assess the risk of an accident. If danger is imminent, a warning message is played in the driver's earphones. 

The real-world tests "determined there is a safety benefit," a spokesperson for Kansai Transmission and Distribution said.

Kansai Electric Power has also worked with Panasonic and Toyota Motor to test a similar approach for sending smartphone alerts. The findings of these efforts can be applied to self-driving vehicles, the company said.

Smaller intersections far outnumber expressways and come in a wide variety of shapes. Drivers must contend with the constant risk that a bicycle or pedestrian will veer into their path without warning. But one thing nearly all intersections in Japan have in common is the presence of a utility pole nearby. Armed with digital technology, these poles can provide a new layer of infrastructure supporting self-driving vehicles.

The innovation came at an opportune time. Kansai Electric Power split off Kansai Transmission last year as part of a larger deregulation push in the power industry. Power grid usage fees generate most of the earnings, but weaker power demand amid energy conservation means income growth has slowed.

Kansai Transmission earned a pretax  profit of 60.8 billion yen ($546 million) in the year ended March, but that figure is projected to tumble to the 50 billion-yen range in fiscal 2025. Finding other revenue sources has become an urgent issue.

And grids are expensive to maintain. The multitude of concrete utility poles erected during the postwar period prior to the 1990s is coming due for replacement or refurbishment. The costs will amount to tens of billions of yen a year, which will only increase down the road.

Digital solutions will also be summoned to maintain the infrastructure for stable energy supplies. In a recent instance, a helmeted maintenance manager was seen entering into a mobile device

"No external damage, no surface weathering, no slanting," the worker observed.

Existing rules require that a pole be inspected once every five years, requiring crews to survey 550,000 poles annually. Previously, inspectors wrote subjective observations on paper, but in 2014, Kansai instituted dozens of standardized criteria requiring digital input. Over the last five yeas, they collected 2.7 million items of data.

Concrete utility poles are meant to last 60 to 70 years. However, environmental factors significantly affect their life span.

Poles located next to the ocean, for example, are prone to faster degradation. An artificial intelligence program analyzes 40 different types of data, including length of service, wear and tear, and distance from the water. The results yield models projecting when poles should be updated.

"We're able to tell when each utility pole will need to be refurbished and from what type of deterioration," said a member of Kansai Transmission's equipment strategy group. The company has started to use projection models in planning out renewals, which will curb costs. The program found there are some poles that could last 130 years.

As each pole must be inspected once every five years, data stays current and useful. To upgrade the precision of projection models, the AI program will analyze roughly 100 categories of data by the end of this fiscal year, or 2.5 times the original count. The new criteria include data on solar radiation, geology and road widths.

To conform with industrial deregulation, Japanese utilities have been forced to split off power transmission units. There are about 22 million electrical poles across the country. Because earnings opportunities for transmission companies are limited, searching for new applications for the poles is a shared challenge.

In this vein, Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings launched a flood detection service in August in which sensors are placed on roads and riverside walls while transmitters are installed on utility poles. The idea is to determine flood conditions in real time and contribute to disaster prevention.

Europe has taken the lead in the digital transformation of electrical providers. The Italian power group Enel has embraced virtual power plants, or collections of solar panels or other power generators in homes or offices that can be tapped for additional capacity.

However, European countries have relatively fewer electrical poles in service than Japan, whose utilities enjoy wide latitude to make their high volume of poles integral to the country's digital infrastructure.

In 2018, Kansai Electric Power formed a joint digital transformation venture with Accenture Japan. The company, called K4 Digital, has engaged in 130 projects that encompass the inspection and maintenance of transmission towers using image recognition as well as automated telephone responses powered by AI.

The combined additional revenue and cost reduction impact is expected to exceed 10 billion yen through this fiscal year.

"We're already providing some services to some competing companies, and some have reached out about digitally transforming their utility poles," said a business innovation expert at K4 Digital.

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