It Began in the Summer of 2007 as an Effort to Comply with NERC Rules regarding vegetation management of transmission. Instead of simply complying with the rules, specifically NERC Standard FAC-003-1, American Electric Power (AEP; Columbus, Ohio, U.S.) is rewriting the book on how utilities can collect and leverage GIS data.


AEP was the first company to deploy a new asset inventory system based on Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology, which was pioneered by ArborMetrics Solutions Inc. (Hendersonville, North Carolina, U.S.) and Utility Risk Management Corp. (URMC; Doylestown, Pennsylvania, U.S.). Beyond allowing AEP to comply with NERC rules and mitigate threats caused by trees and vegetation, the new technology is being tested to determine how it might become an integral component in the 11-state power company's rights-of-way (ROW) clearing, engineering, GIS and overall asset management strategies.

AEP plans to expand the use of LiDAR to conduct comprehensive geospatial inventories of the ROW along its entire transmission network.

AEP hopes to achieve four goals through the use of LiDAR technologies:

  1. Maintain its reputation as a significant national transmission provider


    Comply with NERC vegetation management standards

  3. Conduct a thorough “proof-of-concept” review of the potential costs and benefits of the LiDAR technology


    Determine all the additional benefits that LiDAR can bring to expansion planning, engineering, operational and maintenance activities for all transmission and distribution lines.

AEP's Lynn Grayson, past president of the Utility Arborist Association, and his field utility foresters' initial reactions to the LiDAR work performed by ArborMetrics and URMC to date have been positive. LiDAR provides better information, faster and with more accuracy than previous methods. Additionally, the information is provided in a format that may be leveraged across transmission and distribution and other areas for a host of risk management and operations tasks.


Because of the more stringent NERC vegetation standards, every utility has been forced to increase the level at which it measures and monitors vegetative threats. AEP's vision is much bigger than compliance. It simply wants to be the best, and that means using state-of-the art technology to better understand and protect its infrastructure. By demanding more of itself than the regulators do, AEP's compliance becomes a simple by-product of internal operations. A key part of AEP's strategy is to maintain comprehensive, up-to-date GIS data of all its assets along the transmission ROW.

Initially, AEP considered LiDAR for NERC transmission ROW needs. However, once AEP saw the potential benefits, it challenged ArborMetrics/URMC to demonstrate LiDAR on a mixture of all transmission and distribution voltage lines. AEP has a keen interest in improving customer reliability and reducing customer outages, so it is working to review the potential application of these technologies across its distribution system.

The challenge of using any such system for managing risk is that the utility's network is vast and the environment is constantly changing. Because data accuracy is a moving target, utilities have forever sought asset inventory methodologies that update their data frequently. But, while LiDAR technology has long been known to provide the detailed information companies need, the cost of collecting and processing LiDAR images of a utility's entire footprint has never been economically feasible. The promise of LiDAR has been out there, but there's never been a cost-effective way to turn the data into usable information that utilities can collect on a regular basis.

The initial focus was to apply LiDAR to assist AEP in increasing reliability, mitigating threats and expediting maintenance. However, AEP's forward thinking is transforming what used to be thought of as a high-tech, special-needs application into a practical, system-wide solution. Historically, LiDAR was viewed as either an engineering solution or a vegetation solution. This project is showing how AEP's broader vision may drive value to the electric utility industry.

Like many utilities, AEP has traditionally used an aerial patrol technique (both human visual inspection and video) to prioritize vegetation work. Although these are great processes, AEP's utility foresters know the processes can be subject to human error.

To achieve its first two goals, AEP was first introduced to the ArborMetrics/URMC LiDAR solution last summer, when AEP requested a pilot project on 2500 miles (4023 km) of transmission lines. The objective was to identify any immediate or potential vegetative threats that may have been missed by AEP's helicopter surveillance team, which typically flies along all transmission lines at least annually to visually identify danger trees or aggressive underbrush. Data collection began in the late summer and was completed over a three-month period and more than 60 days ahead of schedule.

After analyzing the data from these collections, the Arbormetics/URMC team reported 247 additional critical events where vegetation or tree growth represented a serious threat to the line — more than AEP's existing methods have found. Each critical event was defined in great detail, including the nature and severity of the problem along with the GIS coordinates of the location. To confirm these findings, AEP sent a team into the field to conduct a two-day helicopter audit to compare the pilot project data to reality on the ground. The audit demonstrated that 98% of the critical events identified by the analysis were serious issues when judged against the new NERC standards. Five of the 247 events were not vegetation related, including a potential safety hazard that was immediately investigated.

When AEP saw the results, it responded immediately. It sounds good to say that every line mile is being inspected annually, but the reality is that AEP's current practices are still a very manual process. While AEP expected the pilot program might identify a couple issues it would need to address, the results caused AEP to consider additional potential benefits that innovative LiDAR techniques might yield.

Since AEP's tolerance for errors is zero, developing a process to eliminate this “knowledge gap” was imperative. There are no points in the utility business for “I did my best” or “I tried hard.” Every day is another test where the grade is pass or fail, causing forestry and operations personnel to lose sleep at night. The only measure of success is that the lights stay on. The bottom line is that this technology expands the ability to know about and eliminate the risk of outage.

Historically, the prospect of using LiDAR on just AEP's NERC lines meant pushing through unprecedented cost increases to annual budgets and to customers — somewhere on the order of a 100% increase in clearing costs. This was certainly far too costly for vegetation managers to consider, despite the threat of millions of dollars in fines for each instance where regulations are breached. Therefore, the only tools at their disposal have been helicopter crews and foot patrols. However, among the compelling qualities of ArborMetrics/URMC's technology and processing methodology is that AEP is achieving its third goal by beginning to conduct a thorough proof-of-concept review of the potential costs and benefits of LiDAR technology.


Essentially, the process involves collecting images from a helicopter-mounted LiDAR camera that was flown along the ROW of all transmission lines 200 kV and above. The LiDAR unit emits pulses of light toward an object to obtain measurement information such as its height or distance from other objects. The data is processed by GIS specialists at URMC to create a 3-D map of the ROW. Once imported into a GIS database, the information can be used in many ways across the utility enterprise.

From AEP's perspective, the critical deliverable is called an attributed shape file, which basically means a database full of details on the entire landscape along the ROW that can be fed into and interpreted by AEP's GIS system.

AEP is also applying the power of LiDAR to its distribution network with a ground-based collection system. Deployed on trucks and rail-mounted vehicles, the LiDAR data captures elements beyond vegetation, such as buildings, transformers, poles and attachments. This data is then augmented with important information about each item; geographic coordinates, size, climate and vegetative growth rates are just a few examples. This cross-discipline approach further sets AEP apart from the industry as the data sets the stage for a myriad of analyses, calculations and projections within the GIS platform.

In the vegetation management scenario, the data is sorted based on specified threshold levels to identify any trees that are too close. NERC rules require a plan to remove vegetation that comes too close to transmission lines. In situations where critical issues are found, AEP has a 24-hour response requirement for the utility to deploy vegetation management teams to correct the situation. Further, transmission foresters can schedule work better, and then instantly audit the work that is performed by contractors.

Prior to this technology, it was never possible for AEP to be 100% sure that all vegetation had been removed or that it had been removed well enough to eliminate the immediate threat. However, the LiDAR data allows transmission managers, company executives and regulators alike to see the reality in the field without relying on subjective assessments. For the first time ever, it allows them to measure the performance of a vegetation management vendor and ensure that threats are mitigated swiftly.


Understanding the intended purpose and broader corporate needs of an applied technology solution is at the heart of success in any proof-of-concept business case. This project has allowed AEP and ArborMetrics/URMC to break down the traditional barriers that stifle innovation and really work on solving the challenges that face the electric utility industry.

Beyond vegetation management, the same LiDAR data may permit AEP to accomplish its fourth goal: to support the efforts of engineers who need to conduct a myriad of critical analyses in support of safety and operational management decisions and asset managers who conduct a comprehensive census of their assets. Within the efficiency of the new LiDAR solutions, data can be collected annually, which allows for more accurate tracking of asset inventories than ever before.

AEP believes the ultimate value will be achieved when the utility combines the new data with the analytical capabilities of its internal experts. Last summer, AEP kicked off its gridSMART initiative to bring additional automation and intelligence to its distribution grid. Although vegetation management automation didn't immediately come to mind, the LiDAR technology may improve AEP's ability to assess, plan, schedule, bid and audit all vegetation management efforts along its transmission and distribution lines. AEP hopes to see reliability improvements for its customers and a better value received per dollar deployed.

Standing still, and doing things the traditional way, just doesn't cut it anymore. AEP has committed to leading the industry and to creating an environment where its operation personnel have a finger on the pulse of the entire network. The only way this is possible is by using technology and innovating the way a utility thinks about risk management.

Tom Jobes is director of Distribution System Reliability for AEP's 11-state distribution service territory. His responsibilities include distribution capacity planning, distribution reliability strategic planning, distribution dispatching coordination, functional oversight for all forestry services and coordination of emergency restoration planning.

Larry Moore is vice president of ArborMetrics Solutions Inc. and a 37-year veteran of vegetation management operations for utilities throughout North America. He has extensive experience in safety performance and storm coordination, and is a member of several industry organizations, including the International Society of Arboriculture and the Utility Arborist Association.

Adam Rousselle is the president of Utility Risk Management Corp. His responsibilities include vegetation risk modeling, strategic systems integration, transmission reliability strategic planning and distribution asset inventory deployment.