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Texas A&M University technology used to prevent outages and wildfires

Two researches at Texas A&M University have developed a diagnostic software for monitoring electrical equipment to prevent outages and even wildfires. Getty Images

The threat of wildfires is on most people's minds as Australia suffers from devastating, uncontrollable fires in its southeastern region. While Australia's fires are alleged to be caused by natural occurrences, some, like the California wildfires of late 2019, are caused by electrical malfunctions and sparks

Engineers at Texas A&M University have found a solution for preventing these electricity-caused wildfires — and the subsequently caused electrical outages — with their diagnostic software called Distribution Fault Anticipation, or DFA. The software can interpret variations in the electrical current on utility circuits — usually caused by issues with the equipment — that can cause outages or spark fires.

A Texas A&M research team — spearheaded by B. Don Russell, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and research professor Carl L. Benner — is behind the DFA software.

The technology has been tested at over a dozen utilities in Texas over the past six years, according to a news release, and now two Californian utility companies — Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison — will be testing DFA. In 2018, a state law from the California Public Utilities Commission began requiring utilities to submit Wildfire Mitigation Plans, per the release.

Up next: The researchers are preparing to test the software in Australia and New Zealand.

DFA's specific algorithms are based on and refined through 15 years of research. Russell and Benner liken DFA to the diagnostic tools cars use, and, comparatively, the utilities industry is way behind the times.

"Utility systems operate today like my 1950s Chevy," Russell says in the release. "They have some fuses and breakers and things, but they really don't have anything diagnostic. They don't have that computer under the hood telling them what's about to go wrong."

B. Don Russell, professor of electrical and computer engineering, led the research at A&M. Photo via A&M

Normal wear and tear on electrical equipment is inevitable, but it's hard for inspectors to visually see this damage. Until this DFA software, utilities had no choice but to react to failures or outages, rather than put money into prevention. The software allows for these companies to better see what could potentially cause issues. And, now with the ability to factor in dry conditions and weather, the software can even predict potential wildfires.

"Power is being turned off with nothing known to be wrong with a given circuit," Russell says in the release. "Utilities need a crystal ball, something telling them which circuit is going to start a fire tomorrow because it is already unhealthy. We are kind of that crystal ball."

DFA has the potential to prevent outages and devastation caused by wildfires, and it also is a huge economic solution for utilities companies — especially the ones reeling from the recent fires in California.

Pacific Gas & Electric, which is testing nine DFA devices, is the state's largest utility company and recently filed for bankruptcy due to a near $100 billion required from settlements following recent fires. By comparison, a DFA device costs only $15,000, according to the release.

"DFA is a new tool, allowing utilities to transform their operating procedures to find and fix problems before catastrophic failures." Russell says in the release. "Utilities operators need real time situational awareness of the health of their circuits…..DFA does that."

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Building Houston

 
 

Everest will sell products from more than 1,000 U.S. manufacturers. Photo courtesy of Everest

Houston businessman Bill Voss has forever found his zen through his lifelong passion for the great outdoors, but there’s one aspect that was making him positively furious: the shopping.

Burned out with driving to brick-and-mortar stores, standing in long lines, and dealing with dreaded returns, Voss turned his necessity into invention and launched Everest.com, a new shopping/lifestyle marketplace and community platform that links active-minded customers to more than 1,000 U.S.-based merchants and retailers.

By utilizing what it describes as “state of the art” artificial intelligence, the company aims to create the largest marketplace on earth for the outdoor recreation community, covering activities such as hiking, camping, biking, rock climbing, winter sports, water sports, team sports, fishing, hunting, kayaking, rafting, and road and trail running.

Voss’ timing is sound: Current industry estimates suggest consumers spend $700 billion in outdoor recreation, with less than 20 percent of those sales transacted online. Towards that end, Voss plans to increase his sellers to 10,000 by 2023.

Everest members can also enjoy perks through a program dubbed Caliber, which provides its members with several exclusive benefits including free shipping, advance sales, travel benefits, big discounts on gear, and — a plus these days — discounts on fuel. Voss notes that the site’s core values are pushing U.S.-made products and giving back; Everest will have nonprofit and conservation partners.

CultureMap caught up with the active Voss on the heels of his Everest launch.

CultureMap: Congratulations on the launch. Essentially, have you created an Amazon for the outdoors crowd — but with a sense of community, too?

Bill Voss: We started Everest.com to create the first online marketplace with the sole focus of offering outdoor enthusiasts retail goods for purchase from merchants across the country who offer domestically made goods.

In our experience, people who love the outdoors also appreciate the concept of community. At Everest, we want to bolster that community by giving local businesses a wider sales reach, contributing to local and national charitable organizations, and asking everyone in our community to share the story of their “Everest.”

We’re taking a fairly segmented market and bringing it together into one community-focused ecosystem. We call that ecosystem Everest.


CM: What Houston spots have most inspired you? And have you visited Everest yet?

BV: I’m a fisherman at heart. I have been fishing the Gulf of Mexico since I could hold a fishing rod. There is nothing I’d rather do than spend a whole day on the water casting, trolling, or remembering many epic fights reeling in a big one.

So naturally, I love Galveston, Kemah, etc. and being so close to the Gulf is a huge reason why I love Houston. The city itself may be a major metropolitan area, but it is full of so many parks and recreation areas that are great to walk through when you need to escape the sounds of the city for a bit— which Houston really doesn’t get enough credit or exposure for.

Houston has an amazing outdoor community with so many choices to support it — it’s hard to pick just one activity that ranks number one.

I do have plans to visit Everest actually! I am arranging a trip with two brothers that have made it to the top more than anyone else and they assure me it will be an amazing trip.

CM: Clearly, you’re an avid outdoorsman. Is it correct to say that Everest was inspired by frustration and hassle of bouncing to other sites and stores?

BV: Exactly! I found myself doing just that and it’s infuriating. I’d be visiting multiple stores, going through multiple checkouts, and waiting on multiple boxes to arrive — and sometimes dealing with multiple return scenarios. So, I set out to fix it — for all of us.

I grew up fishing, spending hours on the water with my dad. To me that’s one of the best parts of any outdoor activity, the quality time spent with the people you love. I don’t think you get the same experience if you’re sitting around a tv screen together, and you certainly don’t get it if you’re spending hours on your computer trying to track down the perfect beginner fishing rod for your daughter. Time is precious, and the endless toil of gear compilation eats into those few available hours we have to spend together.

By aggregating thousands of outdoor brands and gear retailers and centralizing them into one marketplace, we’re allowing our users to hop on, find everything they need, and check out easily. We’re just getting started but, within the next two years, we hope to add even more sellers and products along with more community offerings.

Being out on the water showing my kids how to bait a hook or how to find a school of fish, those are the memories I hope they take with them. With Everest, it has been important to me to help make those kinds of experiences easily attainable for everyone and the people they love.

CM: Speaking of other stores, do you plan to go head-to-head with the REIs and Sun and Skis of the world? Or Amazon?

BV: I get this question all the time and I love it. As to the first two, definitely not. We’re a marketplace, we’re here to help companies like REI and Sun and Ski, who can participate as sellers and reach new customers.

The difference is that our members can pick up everything they need, from multiple retailers, in one cart, with one easy checkout option. Many of the big names already spotlight and sell products on Amazon — they can do the same with Everest. We are a community of like-minded outdoor loving enthusiasts that have been looking for a niche marketplace to serve all of us.

Think of what Chewy did in the pet industry — we are doing the same thing for those that love the outdoors. Amazon has to be everything to everybody. We don’t, and we don’t want to.

CM: Do you see Everest ever creating brick-and-mortar stores?

BV: Wonderful question. The beauty of Everest is we are still a young company with options to consider. But remember, one of the main tenets of Everest is supporting our sellers. We are not looking to get into a situation where we are competing directly with them.

However, we’d love to one day open a shop selling Everest sweatshirts and swag in downtown Houston. It would be so fulfilling to see the outdoor community wearing Everest branded clothing and putting Everest stickers on their gear in the future.

The bottom line is, we are sprinting as hard as we can in hopes of waking up one day as a true disruptor, household name, and eternal brand.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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