Google and UK Power Networks develop world-first map software

Google’s artificial intelligence division is revolutionising hand-drawn maps of electricity cables in a move that could benefit the global utility industry.

Google’s DeepMind engineers have partnered with UK Power Networks to create digital versions of maps covering more than 180,000km of electricity cables.

The work involves new image recognition software scanning thousands of maps (some of which date back decades) and automatically remastering them into a digital format for future use.

Until now, no artificial intelligence software has been able to recognise hand-drawn straight lines and classify objects like electricity cables, then recreate them as fully-interactive digital files. The thousands of miles of cables owned by UK Power Networks is proving to be the perfect test bed for Google. Once the trial is complete, other utilities around the world could use the process to ‘digitise’ their own networks.

Utility firms currently have to manually scan maps of underground equipment to get electronic versions, and each has an extensive library of maps to update. Experts estimate that collaborating with DeepMind means large chunks of the task can be finished three years faster than was previously thought possible – and up to 10 times cheaper. For UK Power Networks, the AI is already cutting 20,000 hours’ scanning work down to 15 minutes.

Digital maps also mean UK Power Networks will be able to provide better, faster services to the 15,000-plus customers a year who apply for upgraded electricity connections when, for example, they need to connect renewable energy sites or electric vehicle charging hubs.

The company is also making the digital maps freely available to the industry, meaning energy battery operators, local authorities or energy aggregators can see where to plan new equipment, and bid for flexible energy market contracts. Each electricity substation, cable or overhead line will be visible, helping people stay safe when carrying out excavation work.

Alex Mahon, Head of Analytics at UK Power Networks, says: “We’ve been collaborating with Google throughout the past year to trial this, and we’ve been getting increasingly excited throughout. Not only will it help keep people safe and help more low carbon technologies connect, but it has huge implications for utility sectors across the world who may wish to do the same. This innovation could save millions of pounds for customers and help enable net zero: that’s the power of digital innovation.”

Money saved through the innovative project will be re-invested in the electricity network, so UK Power Networks can further improve its strong performance on safety, reliability and to enable the UK’s transition to a low carbon economy.

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