When Measure, an aerial intelligence company, landed a job inspecting a ginormous 1,700-acre, 328-megawatt solar farm, Burton Putrah knew just who to call for assistance in handling this much data.
“This one inspection was double the amount of solar data we’d processed year-to-date,” says Putrah, Director of Data Operations at Measure and a 2009 sociology and geography graduate of the University of Vermont College of Arts and Sciences. “When we realized we’d need to outsource some of the work, I immediately thought this was the perfect opportunity to work with my alma mater at the University of Vermont’s Spatial Analysis Lab.”
Founded in 1982, the Spatial Analysis Lab (SAL) at the University of Vermont (UVM) has been called “the birthplace of GIS in Vermont.” It is an applied research facility located in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. Lab faculty and research professionals work with paid student interns from a variety of majors as well as faculty from other units of study to apply geospatial technologies to challenges in natural resources planning and ecology.
Lab Director Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne oversees five full-time staff, along with 10-25 full- and part-time undergraduate interns.
“Our goal is to provide our interns with real-world experience so they show up to a job interview with some actual projects under their belt,” O’Neil-Dunne explains.
He likes to say that the lab’s main task is to “extract meaningful information from remotely sensed data.” In other words, like Measure, the lab takes mere images and turns them into actual data that people can use to make decisions. Most of the lab’s projects focus on the environment, such as tree canopy assessments for many metropolitan cities including Baltimore, Seattle, Chicago, and New York.
The lab began working with drones after Hurricane Irene hit Vermont in 2011. When satellite imagery and traditional airborne imagery proved unsuitable for mapping the damage, the SAL turned to drones. To encourage participation in the drone program, UVM covers the cost for the Part 107 exam for student interns who are interested in becoming licensed drone pilots.
Carson Vallino ’19 is one of the current drone pilots in the lab. He is a senior majoring in environmental sciences with a concentration in geometry.
“One of the main reasons I joined the Spatial Analysis Lab was because of my interest in drones,” Vallino says. “I currently have a drone of my own that I use purely for fun, but it’s something I could see myself doing in the future.”
The project with Measure gave UVM the opportunity to provide technically challenging work to students with an output that is going to be used to make real business decisions in the next 30-60 days.
Although the lab seeks collaborative projects with organizations in the public and private sectors, most of the projects have been traditional in scope – meaning they are research projects that last for a year or more and result in publication in a journal.
“In academia, we’re used to one-to-two-year projects, not 30 days!” O’Neil-Dunne says. “This project was stressful and uncomfortable in the right ways, and it really helped build the team.”
For Measure’s data team, the project was a solar inspection like any other, only with so much data that the internal team would not be able to process it by the deadline. For UVM, the project was a good fit for a few specific reasons:
- One of the lab’s strengths is extracting features of an object, such as geometric shape or texture. This helped Measure because this solar farm used thin-film panels which are more difficult to extract than the panels Measure had inspected in the past.
- The lab was already knowledgeable in using and processing drone data.
- The lab had never worked with solar data before, so it was a great learning opportunity for the organization and the students.
To get the students up and running, Putrah traveled to Vermont to perform on-site training for two days. He gave a crash course on solar field operations, something that was of particular interest to Vallino.
“Working with solar panels, you can visualize how this work is going to be useful to millions of people around the world,” Vallino says. “To perform this work supporting renewable energy was personally rewarding,”
The students were already familiar with the mapping tool ArcGIS, and Putrah trained them on the design and construction of solar panels, as well as common types of damage. He also provided the same workflow that Measure uses for its solar inspection. The combination of good process and good technology made the QC (quality control) part less challenging than Vallino had expected.
“The workflow was streamlined out of the gate, and the technology was pretty intuitive once you got a couple days of experience behind it,” he reflects. “The biggest challenge was the timeframe.”
But after a month of working collaboratively with UVM, Measure was very pleased with the end product and delivered it on time to a happy client.
“The students at the Spatial Analysis Lab were incredibly smart and picked up the process quickly,” says Putrah. “We delivered a quality data deliverable that was on par with what we would have done in-house.”
In addition to a happy client for Measure, the collaboration between private sector startup and university lab has many lasting effects on students and the industry.
The students involved now have actual work experience in the energy industry. When they go to an interview, they can do more than point to classwork or an assignment, they have a real project – with a deadline and budget – that they worked on for an actual energy customer. Not only that, but they will be well-versed in industry language and terminology.
“This points to a new direction for collaboration with universities. Through this model, we are able to equip students with real work experience, which also improves the job market for emerging industries such as drones,” explains O’Neil-Dunne. “If companies are able to hire recent grads who have already worked with the data and done the analysis, they are eliminating a large learning curve, which better positions our students and their companies for advancements in their field.”
For Vallino, the project solidified his plans to be involved both with commercial drones and in renewable energy.
“The work we did with Measure was incredibly important and was actually fun to sink your teeth into,” he says. “I definitely want to continue to do this type of work.”
For Putrah, the work doesn’t end here. Measure has already embarked on another inspection with UVM in Hawaii, and he will continue to pursue opportunities to work with his alma mater.
“This knowledge transfer is what our industry needs,” he says. “There’s a connection you have with the place you went to university, and it was special to bring work to them. I hope to continue to nurture this relationship and bring real change to the industry through these types of collaborations.”