Sensing opportunity: Executive envisions range of uses for technology

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Steve Whitehurst envisions a range of applications for the sensors his company has developed — everything from monitoring power poles and natural gas wells to collecting information about weather and earthquakes.

Any one of the applications offers a huge market. But the cumulative potential is almost overwhelming, says Whitehurst, chief executive officer of Hayden Data Systems.

And it’s not only about business, he says, but also protecting lives and property and addressing problems on a global basis. “How can we make the blue marble a better place?”

Given interest in the sensors from utility companies and others, Whitehurst says it’s a matter of increasing manufacturing to meet that demand. “It’s really how fast we can scale.”

Mesa County could play a role in that effort, he says. While the county serves as a location for administrative offices and testing facilities, it also could serve as the home for manufacturing facilities for what Whitehurst expects to become a global exporter of high-tech products.

And that could mean additional benefits for an area in which Whitehurst has long worked and lived.

Whitehurst traces the origin of the company and its sensors to Australia and Iain Puddy, who serves as chief technology officer.

Puddy saw the need for a way to monitor power poles after wildfires in 2009 burned more than 1,700 square miles in Australia, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and caused the death of 173 people. Utilities were found culpable of starting 11 of the 15 fires.

Puddy subsequently developed a device to monitor power poles and detect problems before they failed and caused another fire. Power pole sensor prototypes were built and tested in Australia.

Whitehurst, who’s long worked as a computer programmer and manager, says he became interested in the effort and traveled to Australia to meet with Puddy and the utilities with which he was working. 

Whitehurst says he was convinced of the potential for the devices and entered into a business partnership with Puddy.

Hayden Data was incorporated in 2020 and headquartered in Chattanooga, Tenn., to work with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Tennessee Valley Authority to simultaneously develop production models of the device as well as the standards for using the devices to monitor utility poles.

The TVA offers a good proving ground of sorts for the technology, Whitehurst says, in providing electricity for a total of 10 million people in Tennessee and parts of six other states. By one count, there are 3.8 million power poles in the TVA service area.

Utilities in Australia and the TVA as well as utilities in other countries around the world are interested in using the sensors, Whitehurst says. It’s a question of scaling up manufacturing to provide them. 

Manufacturing is underway in four facilities, he says, but isn’t yet nearly enough to meet demand.

The sensors are housed in a compact metal housing equipped with solar panels and batteries.

The devices can communicate seven different ways, Whitehurst says, and can transmit routine signals on a varying schedule. 

But the devices transmit signals in a matter of seconds if some sort of triggering event occurs — a fire has started or a car crashed into a pole, for example. At that point, cameras on the devices can be activated to offer visual assessments.

The devices offer a way for utilities to monitor power poles even in remote locations to detect fires and other problems and prevent them from becoming worse, he says. That’s important in areas like Australia and California, where power lines have triggered wildfires.

The devices also offer a way to monitor power poles and other infrastructure that requires scheduled inspections.

The savings comes from not only preventing catastrophes, but also lowering maintenance costs, he says.

To install sensors on millions of power poles, Hayden Data is developing drones and technology. Using drones, a two-man crew could install sensors on up to 180 poles a day, he says.

While the sensors were initially developed for power poles, the devices also can be equipped for a variety of other uses — monitoring bridges, buildings and other infrastructure. The devices also can monitor emissions from oil and natural gas wells to ensure regulatory compliance.

In addition, the devices can monitor wind, rain, air pressure and relative humidity as well as seismic activity.

Rather than sell sensors, Hayden Data can provide information on a subscription basis. That allows for the capability of selling more than one subscription for a sensor — to a utility and weather service, for example.

Whitehurst says the sensors can help address problems associated with the vulnerability of power grids. But there’s also the potential to address climate resilience and other problems on a global basis.

He says he’s excited about the possibilities to not only succeed in business, but also make the world a better place “We want it to be positive.”

That fuels his passion for work. “I’m at Disneyland every day.”

The devices have been tested and demonstrated to work, Whitehurst says. It’s a matter now of manufacturing them. “We’ve made the point. How do we get them across the globe?”

Those benefits also extend to the proverbial backyard. Whitehurst says he also hopes sensors will be installed in Western Colorado to improve safety and efficiency in the region.

Although many calculations will go into the decisions, Whitehurst says there’s also a possibility manufacturing could take place in Mesa County.