How a Kearney entrepreneur is revolutionizing power line inspections

April 19, 2024, 5 a.m. ·

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This story is part of Nebraska Public Media's "What If..." series on innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship in Nebraska. Watch stories and full episodes at

Entrepreneurship has been a part of Dusty Birge’s life since he was a child.

“My very first business was actually a candy store in grade school,” Birge said. “I had a really great business model. My mom would go to Wal-Mart and buy candy bars, and I sold candy out of the bottom locker in school, even to teachers. It was a really good model because I'd sell candy and then when I'd take the money at the end of the day, I'd go to the arcade and spend it. And I had no cost to goods because my mom just kept buying me candy to sell, but I never had to actually buy it.”

Small engine and snow shoveling ventures followed in his Benkelman hometown, in addition to cooking and selling breakfast to his parents.

“I was so young and I wanted to be in business, so I would look at how other people were running businesses, and I'm like, ‘I want to try to do that,'" he recalled.

After graduating from the University of Nebraska-Kearney a little more than a decade ago, he launched archery, laundromat and drone businesses, selling two of the three. He also worked for General Electric. The stage was set for the next idea.

“I really like to solve problems, and we were in a position of needing to think of a business idea that could scale.” Birge said. “I have a big utility background, and so I went to utilities and validated, ‘I have this idea, does this actually solve a problem that you have?’ And multiple utilities said, ‘Yep, that is a legitimate problem.’"

(Watch our "What If..." series story about Dusty Birge and his company, Fast Forward)

The problem? There are more than five million miles of power lines in the United States, most above ground. Bad things happen when these fail, like untimely outages and wildfires. Regular inspection can catch problems before that happens, but conducting inspections isn't easy.

“The U.S. actually has more power outages than any other developed country. And the challenges due to the interval between inspections, components fail,” Birge said. “And the challenge with our electrical grid is it's so vast that a lot of utilities take over 10 years to do a system-wide patrol. The reason being is because there's no technology that can be done in motion, and at scale, that can be implemented without an impact to the rate payer.”

The common inspection method takes time and resources.

“Just the old-fashioned patrol with a vehicle,” said Jerry Fales, Cozad’s electric commissioner and a former electric line worker. “Look out the window as you're driving, and just a visual inspection of each structure as fast as you could, but pretty time-consuming to drive, stop and look and then stop, drive and look.”

Birge’s solution? Put thermal imaging cameras on a vehicle.

“In electrical applications when components begin to break down, they generate heat, and that heat will lead that component to failing," Birge said. “Unfortunately, the human eye does not see temperature. So we use thermal cameras to visualize those issues. So by putting this technology on top of a car, we can drive down the road and highlight issues that the utility doesn't know about.”

Birge demonstrated the process on a gravel road north of Kearney.

“We have four thermal cameras mounted on the roof, two for each side of the road, on a pan tilt unit that allows us to reposition the camera in the event of uneven terrain or varying pole heights,” Birge said, pointing to the rack of cameras mounted on the top of an SUV. “All the cameras feed through about a dozen wires through the rear window, and then power a television display, a monitor that allows us to intermittently check to make sure the cameras are in a proper position and properly focused.”

So one person in a vehicle can drive and take images of 6,000 power poles a day. That information is then downloaded into software for evaluation.

In the Kearney office of Fast Forward, his company, Birge pulled up an example of what the data they gather looks like on four computer monitors. Programs pare millions of images down to what’s useful, and lay these over maps they’ve created that resemble what you’d see on Google Earth.

“All the white dots are pole locations," he explained. "We're able to quantify which structures have issues, but then we're also able to quantify how bad the issue is. So if you zoom in on the map here, there's different color dots representing different levels of severity.”

He can click on a colored dot to pull up thermal images of the pole and problem hotspots. Utility crews then know exactly what needs fixed.

“We're trying to make as little amount of work for the utility as possible to implement the repair," Birge said. "So they want to know what's wrong, what it's at and how bad it is. All the other steps that we can automate, that's our goal.”

Cozad was an early pilot community for the Fast Forward project.

“It’s already proven to minimize outages, right off the bat,” Fales said. “As soon as we got this, we addressed some of our critical hot spots that he identified with the anomaly in temperature and stuff like that. By already having that done, we were able to go out, prevent the outage, do it during working time where we could schedule the outage according to how the customer's needs were needed. So we could schedule the outage, get that repaired all without any unexpected interruptions, and during daylight hours instead of at night when you're at least apt to find it anyway.”

Fales said Birge is a game changer in the industry.

In just 18 months Fast Forward grew from an idea to dedicating a new office in Kearney last summer.

“I've never started a business that has grown this fast," Birge said.

It hasn’t always been easy. Getting parts and figuring out how to mount cameras to capture thousands of pictures a day was challenging, but investor and power company interest tells Birge he’s on to something. Fast Forward recently landed another $1.5 million in investment and had projects as far east as Massachusetts.

“To put this into perspective, if you were to try to use this on a drone, my best pilots in my prior role could do maybe 200-300 poles per day," Birge said. "Your productivity decreases at night because it's harder to fly a drone at night, and you're limited by weather and other factors. With our car-mounted methodology, we can do 5,000-6,000 poles per day. That is a scalable and economical way for utility to implement system-wide, and they don't have to increase rates to their consumer because just the cost savings alone and the power outages pay for the whole project.

“The intent is to build the business to a point to where a national entity can acquire the company and build it even bigger. But I like to solve problems, and so I think as new technology comes out, there'll be another problem to solve, and I'd like to continue to innovate and create other jobs and other businesses.”

Kind of what you’d expect from a guy who’s been doing this since he started selling candy out of his Benkelman school locker.

Watch our Nebraska Public Media "What If..." series story about Fast Forward and entrepreneur Dusty Birge.