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A Tesla Cofounder’s New Focus: Rock-Tunneling Robots To Protect The Grid

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Ian Wright, one of Tesla’s five cofounders, is best known for developing electric cars and trucks over the past two decades but these days he’s applying his engineering skills to new ways to harden the utility grid from climate change and fire threats as tech chief for Petra. The Silicon Valley startup aims to cut the cost of burying power lines in the toughest terrain with a robotic drill that bores through solid rock and $30 million in new funding to begin commercial operation.  

The company, originally called ArcByt at its founding in 2018, recruited Wright to help improve the thermal spallation drilling technology it was working on. The result is “Swifty,” a semi-autonomous boring robot that Petra says recently completed a 20-foot tunnel through Sioux Quartzite in Minnesota, one of the densest types of rock, that the company says validates its approach.    

During that drilling test, “we averaged an astounding one inch per minute in a geology usually excavated by dynamite,” Wright said. “No tunneling method has been able to tunnel through this kind of hard rock until now. Petra’s achievement is due to Swifty’s thermal drilling method which efficiently bores through rock without touching it.” 

The company aims to work with utilities and engineering firms as the U.S. looks to make electric, water and sewer lines more resilient as climate change raises the frequency and intensity of wildfires, floods and other severe weather events. And whereas Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has his own plans with the Boring Co. for underground tunnels to accommodate vehicles, Petra’s focus is small-bore tunnels of between 20 and 60 inches needed for utilities. It’s strategy may prove well timed as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill signed into law by President Biden last month earmarks $65 billion of federal funds for power infrastructure and $47 billion for resiliency efforts. 

The closely held company estimates the total market for “undergrounding” all exposed U.S. utilities lines could run to $3 trillion. Out of that figure, tunneling projects through hard rock regions, such as California’s fire-prone Sierra Nevada range, could potentially be worth $900 billion, according to Petra. 

California utilities are under particular pressure to find ways to bury power lines that have been linked to triggering some of the state’s worst recent wildfires in remote, mountainous areas. At the same time the cost of tunneling through such challenging areas is exorbitant, running from $6,000 per linear foot to as high as $25,000, according to Petra CEO and cofounder Kimberly Abrams. 

The company’s goal is to be able to cut that cost to as little as $200 per linear foot tunneling through soft soil and to about $600 per foot through hard rock, with commercial operations to start in late 2022. It plans to join engineering companies on projects as a subcontractor handling tough tunneling assignments and in some cases may conduct tunneling projects of its own and lease space to utilities wishing to run their power lines through it. 

“Our mission is to make undergrounding utilities ubiquitous,” Abrams tells Forbes. “We’re starting with building a robot to bury utilities in hard rock because it’s the biggest problem for utility companies and their construction partners.”

She was motivated to start the company in 2018 with Shivani Torres, Petra’s chief product officer, in the wake of the destructive Paradise fire in Northern California, triggered by downed power lines, that created terrible air pollution in the San Francisco Bay region. “What we realized in 2018 was that some of the most disaster-prone areas of the country were also the areas that had these nightmare geologies that no utility company or construction company could bore utility tunnels through–geologies of granite and basalt that stopped tunneling projects in their tracks and that cause billions of dollars of cost overruns.”

Wright, who founded early electric truck developer Wrightspeed in 2005 after leaving Tesla, was brought in to help improve Petra’s drilling tech, which initially started with a high-powered plasma torch, an approach that turned out to be impractical. Though his background isn’t in drilling or geology, his work on megawatt-powered utility vehicles was beneficial to the evolution of Petra’s proprietary technology. He and company cofounders Abrams and Torres declined to share technical details about its spallation drilling system, citing competitive concerns. 

The fact that both Wright and Musk developed an interest in tunneling is entirely coincidental, he says. “I can promise you there was no collusion there. We arrived at this through completely different paths.”

With its $30 million Series A, led by Palo Alto, California-based venture firm DCVC, Petra’s total funding, including an earlier seed round, stands at $33 million. It hopes to raise as much as $100 million more in 2022 ahead of the start of commercial operation. Additional investors include ACME Capital, Congruent Ventures, 8VC, Real Ventures, Elementum Ventures and Mac Venture Capital. 

“Our infrastructure needs a drastic overhaul–especially in light of violent climate change–and we’re committed to investing in companies that are building solutions to make our infrastructure more resilient,” said DCVC Partner Chris Boshuizen (who flew on Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin rocket with actor William Shatner in October). “Not only is Petra offering a faster and more affordable approach to complex tunneling projects, but by introducing the first new innovation in rock cutting techniques in nearly a century, that are enabling projects that previously would have been considered impossible.” 



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