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Digital Spec Development Arrives

By Chris Clair

The new Powervision website and app created by East Kentucky Power Cooperative combines existing data with drone images and engineering renderings to allow prospects to preliminarily assess Kentucky development sites without physically visiting remote properties.
The new PowerVision website and app created by East Kentucky Power Cooperative combines existing data with drone images and engineering renderings to allow prospects to preliminarily assess Kentucky development sites without physically visiting remote properties.

East Kentucky Power Cooperative is releasing a dramatic new digital site presentation tool it thinks could change the economic development game in its rural service territory, and maybe for the state. It enables a prospect in Germany or New Jersey to see a Kentucky site in three dimensions, its pertinent infrastructure both existing or as it could be installed, and include renderings of the facility they want to build.

The PowerVision web site and associated app for mobile devices combines high-definition aerial drone video of industrial sites with digital topographic mapping and detailed engineering information to create three-dimensional surface models. That’s then merged with data from StateBook, which aggregates community demographic, tax, utility cost, incentive and quality of life information.

The new technology expands on EKPC’s existing PowerMap, a mobile app that combines GPS functionality and StateBook data to provide users with detailed information about communities in EKPC’s 87-county service territory.

The resulting geographic and engineering information can be imported into computer-aided design and drafting software, giving engineers working for potential site users the ability to model site profiles, cross sections and drainage analyses without having to visit the site.

Electric utilities regularly play active supporting roles in economic development for communities or states because industrial projects represent large customers whose steady power demands increased revenue while easing overall grid management.

Tony Campbell, president/CEO of EKPC, said PowerVision will give the utility the ability to virtually transport site selectors to industrial sites in its service area, which he hopes could give communities a boost when it comes to attracting industrial jobs.

“The rural nature of the areas we serve – away from large cities and airports – makes it particularly challenging to get site selectors to pay a visit,” Campbell said. PowerVision helps “demonstrate that we’ve already done a lot of the preliminary work necessary to ensure it’s a developable site.”

EKPC officially unveiled PowerVision Nov. 10 at the Kentucky Association for Economic Development fall conference in Lexington. When it rolls out, PowerVision will have full drone video and digital mapping workups for 16 industrial sites in EKPC’s territory. By spring the utility hopes to add four more, and still more after that.

EKPC worked with engineering and site development firm Qk4 Inc. for the aerial video footage and digital site topography aspects, and technology firm Interapt on the mobile platform for PowerVision.

Big opportunity for remote properties

Site selectors and the industrial clients they represent tend to be familiar with Louisville, Lexington and Northern Kentucky, said Brad Thomas, economic development associate manager at EKPC. They are less aware that there may be sites that suit them in Kentucky’s more rural locations.

“When you look at PowerMap and what we’ve done with StateBook, we had part of the equation there,” Thomas said. “But the missing piece was being able to showcase industrial sites in a way that can be viewed anywhere at any time and to provide that to our communities for free in that cooperative spirit, so to speak.

“Most economic development starts now with internet research,” Thomas said, “and if you can take a virtual tour of an industrial park, that helps us in selling our state and our communities.”

Industrial clients often hire site selectors to find the best fit in terms of location, workforce skills, utility costs, taxes and tax incentives. PowerVision is designed to showcase sites professional site selectors may not have considered visiting. EKPC hopes the level of detail and flexibility of the data is such that sites will become finalists that previously wouldn’t have even been on site selectors’ radar.

Qk4 works with industrial site developers, real estate brokers and end users. Clients from all over the world are looking at industrial sites in Kentucky, said Qk4 President Taylor Kelly, but not all of them can come here to see the sites in person. Thus, EKPC and Qk4 wanted to develop a package that could be used anywhere.

PowerVision builds off the PowerMap app’s use of StateBook data for EKPC communities. The key wrinkle comes from the use of two types of aerial drones, Kelly said. Drones have changed the aerial surveying game by cutting costs and making it easier to survey more remote areas, he said.

Manned mapping too costly for many

“A lot of times if you have an isolated project – say a little bridge replacement in a rural county in Kentucky – and there’s no mapping available, it’s cost prohibitive to get an airplane up in the air and fly it from an airport with all the mapping equipment,” Kelly said. “A conventional survey – lots of points and lots of gathering of information – again, that’s a very labor-intensive task if you’re going to get ground elevation information on lots of points in an isolated spot.”

The dawn of the aerial drone – and from Qk4’s business perspective the survey drone in particular – changed all that.

The first drone Qk4 uses takes HD images of industrial sites. The second, called an eBee, looks a little like a Styrofoam glider. It’s a survey drone that uses an on-board digital camera to collect data points from georeferenced aerial images, a process called photogrammetry.

By combining that data with real-life elevations, Kelly said, the software creates highly accurate three-dimensional images (to within 0.6 inches per pixel) of industrial sites onto which drainage data, utility services, roads, even building renderings made to scale can be overlaid.

Imagining what a 1 million-s.f. facility might look like on a 500-acre grass field isn’t easy, he said, but in post-processing PowerVision can integrate a building rendering to a high-quality digital image of the site, taking into account hills, drainage issues and access points.

“It really is creating a visualization that we can take anywhere in the world,” Kelly said.

This capability can free industrial site owners from having to spend money “pre-developing” the site with roads and other infrastructure in order to showcase it.

“Historically what you would do is lay out the industrial park and start building roads and infrastructure,” Kelly said. “A park may build a 100,000-s.f. spec building and hope that clients would come in and say, ‘That’s exactly what we need.’ There’s lots of dollars to invest in that initial infrastructure.”

Industrial site owners also had to make their best guess at what tract sizes, road layouts and utility locations prospective clients might want. If they guessed wrong, the costs and logistics of moving or removing that infrastructure could eliminate a site from consideration.

“Now what we’re able to do is pivot and (give industrial park owners) a lot more flexibility with these sites,” Kelly said. “If you need 1,000 acres, we’ve got that, and we don’t necessarily have to invest early in the infrastructure. We can show you exactly what you may need and tailor the sites to the client as opposed to hoping that the clients tailor themselves to the site.”

PowerVision could free site owners from having to do much in the way of building roads or spec buildings.

Free information, no hidden costs

The benefits to others in the development process truly distinguish PowerVision, Thomas said.

“The cutting-edge technology that takes this further is having information that would be necessary for an industrial site selector to be able to figure out if this is the right location for their project,” Thomas said. “We’re appealing to not only site selectors but also the engineers for the development company that are trying to figure out the cost to develop the land. By providing those CAD files in an easy-to-use format, and for free, it makes our sites a lot more attractive based on the fact that there’s not any hidden issues with the site because we’re providing as much information as we possibly can.”

Joe Lilly, director of the Office of Research and Public Affairs for the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, said he sees great potential in PowerVision, and will be linking to the community videos produced through the technology via its SelectKentucky interactive web site.

“The concept of PowerVision is amazing,” Lilly said. “Imagine having the capability to go to a site selector with all of this information accessible in his or her office – to be able to see how a building would fit on a property, how much land is available, what the topography is, etc. That is an incredible marketing asset that simply is not available in most areas in the country.”

Chris Clair is a correspondent for The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected].