The future of Utility inspections: An interview with Steve Hambric, President of North America for eSmart Systems.

eSmart Systems, the energy industry’s leader in AI-based grid inspection and grid maintenance planning software, recruited Steve Hambric last October as President of North America. Steve has been driving the company’s vision through rapid expansion and the implementation of a long-term growth strategy during the first year in his role. In this interview, he shares with us his experience as President, the value of eSmart Systems’ products to North American Utilities, and the role of AI in the energy industry.

 

A year ago, you took the role of President of North America Operations at eSmart Systems. You were recruited to lead an ambitious strategy and to expand business to North America. What have you achieved in your first year?

Before joining, I was fortunate enough to spend time with some eSmart leaders and board members working on our North America strategy. So when I became part of the team, we were aligned and confident in our focus from day one.

First, we focused on deploying Grid Vision™ to help utilities revolutionize how they inspect and manage their transmission and distribution networks. This is the best product-market fit I’ve had in my career, and it creates compelling value for utilities, their customers, regulators, and partners. In addition to focusing on our solution and its application, we were committed to being more disciplined in the opportunities we pursued.  

We focused on programmatic inspections of a core group of utilities with clear opportunities to scale. The results have been fantastic. When I joined, we had recently signed our first Grid Vision™ contract in North America.  Since then, we’ve added six more leading utilities with a great pipeline to follow.  In spite of the disruption we’re all battling with Covid-19, we have more than doubled North America revenue in 2020 while executing a dramatic strategic pivot. The broader eSmart team has done amazing work to make this happen. Additionally, we’ve laid the foundation in 2020 for a compelling future with Grid Vision™. 

What are other focus areas for 2020?

Partnerships are very important to how we’ll deliver maximum value to the utility industry.  We aren’t trying to do everything. Instead, we are focused on building and delivering technology in a way that maximizes the value our partners deliver for utilities. These partners primarily include aerial image capture and inspection services firms.  

We even changed the name of our product from Connected Drone to Grid Vision™ this year to be more clear about what we do and what we don’t do. We don’t own or operate drones and our AI software analyzes images from aerial and ground-based sources.

Can you explain how eSmart Systems’ Grid Vision™ brings value to your customers in North America?

Absolutely. eSmart Systems builds and delivers fantastic technology that helps the industry conduct inspections that are more accurate, thorough, fast, safe, and cost-effective. We don’t need to completely replace existing inspection processes. In fact, we’ve designed our tools to flexibly integrate with existing processes to make them both more efficient and more effective. Utilities will get the best results when human experts and AI work collaboratively. It’s also important that we make all this data and insight available for a host of other use cases to support utilities asset management, maintenance, supply chain, analytics, and more.   

What are the key challenges you foresee for utilities looking to revolutionize inspections and asset management?  How is eSmart Systems positioned to help the industry overcome these challenges?

Risk, whether real or perceived, is always going to influence how rapidly you can change processes as mission critical as these.  We developed an approach we call Collaborative AI. It allows utilities to use algorithms to learn from the subject matter experts while they do their inspections. Then gradually, the AI can handle a greater share of the inspections. This can be done with as much or as little human expert oversight as desired.

Another risk with such a massive opportunity is creating a project so complicated that it takes too long to begin. If we as an industry try to jump headfirst into AI-enabled predictive maintenance, it’s going to be a long jump. We think there are some great first steps that have quick paybacks. It will build a foundation for a more compelling and integrated vision of the future.    

With the acquisition of some big utilities as customers, eSmart Systems has got a solid foothold in the US market. For continued growth, what is the most important thing to focus on going forward?

This is so basic, but we need to listen to our utilities and partners first. Then process that information to continually improve our products and how we deploy them. Utilities have an amazing track record of maintaining safe and reliable networks. By collaborating with them we’ll deliver the next generation of technology solutions and create massive value for the industry.  

eSmart Systems is certainly poised to continue disrupting the status quo for Utility companies. What role do you see AI playing in the future of our energy systems?

As in most industries, there are almost limitless applications for AI in utilities. But as a partner to utilities, it's critical that we not get distracted by chasing too many use cases. Until AI reaches a certain level of competence, and I believe that level of competence will be very high, we aren’t going to create value at a scale relative to current business processes.  So, we need to maintain the narrow focus we spoke of earlier while delivering incredibly compelling value for electric T&D inspections before we branch off into too many other use cases.