May 9, 2024

How Sheltera AI Founder Robert Kabera Uses AI to Keep Electricity Flowing

How Sheltera AI Founder Robert Kabera Uses AI to Keep Electricity Flowing

"We can do much much, much cooler than giving prompts to ChatGPT."

"We can do much much, much cooler than giving prompts to ChatGPT."

Tell us about yourself. What are you working on right now?

My name is Robert Kabera and I am originally from Rwanda, East Africa. I lived through the 1994 Rwanda genocide, and then spent six years in refugee camps across Africa. I start with that introduction because the work I do now is inspired by those early days. I discovered early on, because of my chaotic childhood, that I'm very comfortable with uncertainty. Uncertainty is something that is perceived as risk in the business world. I've dedicated the last seven years to building predictive risk AI solutions across several industries. Financial services with alternative credit scoring in Ghana, South Africa and Zimbabwe. In agriculture, I'm doing a project with the Environmental Defense Fund around predicting crop yield loss in climate, predicting how extreme weather affects infrastructure, and then my day job, in how the environment—especially vegetation—affects the power grid.

When was your first encounter with AI?

My first encounter with AI probably has to be summer of 2007. I did a summer camp at Stanford and one of the courses I took was taught by a French mathematician, and he was one of the people that first worked on the first autonomous vehicle. It was some kind of SUV that used computer vision and markers on the road to drive itself. That's when I was like, “Oh, man, machines can do what human beings do.” 

What is Sheltera?

Our name is derived from the words “shelter” and “terra”—so it means protecting the Earth. We're in the business of protecting the Earth, and our primary objective is to create a marketplace for vegetation management for the electric utility sector. The reason there’s a marketplace is that 92% of power outages and disruptions are from vegetation. It's not wildfires, it's not hurricanes, it's not tropical storms. It's a limb touching a power line somewhere that no one can see. A marketplace is needed because currently, if a utility wants to solve that problem, they have 100 different tasks they need to do, and they go to 100 different places, which is very inefficient and expensive. But like Amazon, if they had one place to do everything at once, it would be more efficient and mean more reliability for you and I. Our objective is to create this marketplace where they can get all the services they need to deal with this big problem and hopefully reduce risks on the grid.

How do you to use AI at work?

What we are trying to help our companies do is make the grid resilient. The grid is old, it's been around since 1889 and it hasn't really been upgraded. Every year, population is going up. The way we use [the grid] is increasing, but it's staying the same and it's getting old and so it's getting weaker. The biggest threat to the grid is tree limbs falling on power lines. It's also the biggest cost item and 75% of electric utilities budget goes to [vegetation] management. 

When you pay your electricity bill, seventy five cents of [each dollar] goes to managing trees and vegetation. That's because power companies have many, many miles of lines. We are responsible to make sure that those are clear and nothing is touching them because if they do, power outages will occur. Historically this work has been done manually and it is a very slow process. It takes them about five to seven years to monitor everything.

Where does AI come in? It's being able to use satellite imagery and LiDAR. LiDAR is 3D imaging of the physical world that allows us to monitor all that power line. Instead of doing it once every five years, we're able to do it once every two weeks. The outcome of that is that we're able to reduce 95% risks to the grid.

Can you explain grid technology?

We all drive on highways, and above the road when we drive through neighborhoods, we see power lines. I'm looking at one right now. The grid technology is everything that supports the grid, from where the power is produced at a plant to where it's transmitted over highways. Grid tech is basically making sure that the grid, as it is, performs well. That when you put on that light switch or plug in your phone, in your laptop, you get the power you need. Because the grid is old and super expensive to upgrade, we use technology to maintain it, to make sure it remains reliable and it maintains its integrity. And the application of technology to keep the grid up is essentially this theme that people call it grid tech.

ChatGPT works only within the realm of words, but the majority of the world is in the physical space

Do you have any AI tips?

The public is very excited about the most known AI application, which is ChatGPT. ChatGPT works only within the realm of words, but the majority of the world is in the physical space. The visual space and imagery is undergoing amazing revolutions that we can all take advantage of. One of the most famous laws in technology development was Gordon Moore's law. Somewhere in 1968, he discovered that every 18 months, the capacity of storage for a memory chip doubled and the price halved on a similar timeline and that's what drove the computer revolution. Something similar is happening in the imagery industry. Every three years, the resolution goes up by 3x and the price goes down by 3x, which means we can now analyze a whole bunch of  things within the visual space. If you work anywhere in the physical space, whether it's agriculture, transportation, traffic control—if we can see it from the sky, you can do a lot of very cool things [with AI], much, much cooler than giving prompts to ChatGPT.

Do you have a hot take on generative AI?

Everyone thinks [AI] is going to come and take over the world and jobs and make us obsolete. What I try and encourage people to understand is that it is a tool we can use to be more efficient and more proactive about how we do things. And that's a beautiful thing because then you can do a lot more and hopefully have more free time to enjoy life and nature.

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A occasional newsletter showcasing the latest conversations with leaders, builders, and operators who use generative AI to power their work.

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A occasional newsletter showcasing the latest conversations with leaders, builders, and operators who use generative AI to power their work.

Sign up for more AI at Work

A occasional newsletter showcasing the latest conversations with leaders, builders, and operators who use generative AI to power their work.