I strongly believe no technology will replace the noble profession of being a lineman. To me, technology is here to improve our existing processes, situational awareness and customer satisfaction.
For several years, utilities and contractors have been exploring the use of new technology like drones. For example, utilities have flown drones to inspect transmission lines and shooting video of insulators and cross arms without having to send a worker to climb a tower. But what other technological changes — such as autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence (AI) and robots — could improve utility performance in the years ahead? How will these technologies affect resource management? Will new, high-tech tools improve overall utility performance or just add to the complexity of resource management?
Today, utilities manage resources with a combination of manual and automated processes. Pen and paper for capturing damage and whiteboards for building crews are not uncommon approaches. Some utilities have fully automated processes, which simulate different field staffing scenarios so managers can pivot to meet changing conditions and quickly respond with the right crews. Other utilities now have mobile damage assessment technology to eliminate handing off maps and notes between storm coordinators, evaluators and crews. These technologies get the right resources to the right place; these automated tools reduce errors, costs and restoration time.
If we leap ahead 10 years, imagine these three scenarios:
A smart meter reports an outage on a feeder in the middle of the night. Instead of launching a call out and waking up a servicer, the utility releases a drone located at the impacted station (Let’s assume the FAA has eliminated line-of-sight requirements for drones). The drone follows the feeder out, detecting voltage. When the voltage detection or flow of electricity stops, the drone begins videoing the line and feeding footage to a dispatcher in real-time, reducing the time to assess the damage.
Or assume a drone comes upon a broken or downed pole. The drone or dispatcher launches a crew callout, while it fires off a second message alerting an autonomous vehicle to station itself next to a robot in a service center to load the correct pole and then drive to the job site. In the meantime, mapping technology shows the dispatch center that it’s faster for the crew to meet their truck at the downed pole. The working foreman on call leaves his driveway in an autonomously driven company pick-up. While on the road, the foreman has a conversation with the dispatcher and watches an in-dash monitor relaying video, pictures and maps of the damaged equipment along with a work packet. The foreman arrives at the site at the same time as the crew, truck and equipment. After a briefing, restoration begins.
Now envision a complex customer issue. Instead of returning the call from the office, the utility dispatches a drone and provides a hologram that allows the customer to speak face-to-face with a customer service representative, allowing the customer to explain the issue and have the drone take video, if needed, of the utility’s equipment. For customers who want to take advantage of a wake-up call in the event of a power outage, the utility would dial the customer’s mobile phone to awaken them at the selected time, brief them on restoration and answer additional questions.
If deploying the technology highlighted in these scenarios comes to pass (even partially), it will improve a utility’s speed of response, safety record and customer satisfaction. Managing utility and contract crews along with gigabytes (maybe terabytes) of video footage, a fleet of autonomous vehicles, drones and service robots will surely increase the complexity of resource management.
As an industry, a majority of us have already crossed a line where technology is helping us plan, respond and report. For those who haven’t, “always getting the job done” isn’t an argument for continuing to embrace labor-intensive tasks. Customers want the job done, but in record time, too. In a few short years, utilities still relying on handwritten damage assessment or firing off text messages and emails to estimate arrival times for mutual assistance may fall behind as technology continues to advance the capabilities for resource management.
Regardless of how the landscape changes, the industry’s mission is still providing customers with safe, affordable and reliable power. The way we do that will continue to change. For example, if a community were to own its own grid (operating autonomously from the traditional grid), there’s an opportunity for a utility to service these grids even if they’re not operated by the local utility. That’s because utility companies have the institutional know-how and resources to deploy in the event of an outage, carry out maintenance or undertake new construction. Ownership (or not) of these grids shouldn’t preclude a utility from offering the community its technology and workforce (for a fee) to manage just another type of resource.
No entity can replicate the knowledge base and workforce our industry possesses. We have an opportunity to creatively think about how to grow and profit from an ever-expanding, more complex set of resources. Keeping up with the complexity means grafting technology onto our proven processes.
Technology is a tool for resource management, and technology is a master that serves us. We can’t forget the industry’s underlying work is dangerous and hard. Getting our employees home safely each day, every day is job one whether today or 10 years from now.
About the author: Jim Nowak retired as manager of emergency restoration planning for AEP in 2014. He capped his 37-year career with AEP by directing the utility’s distribution emergency restoration plans for all seven of the company’s operating units, spanning 11 states. He was one of the original co-chairs for Edison Electric Institute’s (EEI) Mutual Assistance Committee and National Mutual Assistance Resource Team and a member of EEI’s National Response Event (NRE) governance and exercise sub-committees. He currently serves as senior director of Operational Services for ARCOS LLC.