Today’s Reality, Augmented Reality: Improving Field Worker Efficiency, Security and Quality

Imagine a world where each of your field technicians had recallable experience for every field asset they maintained. Imagine a near perfect first-time-fix-rate. Imagine field inspectors being able to instantly jump from one inspection to another with no wasted travel time.

This isn’t some kind of space odyssey, it is today’s reality”today’s augmented reality. It could be your reality too.

We’ve all experienced the excitement of new technology, only to be disappointed. The hype associated with new technologies is so common that a major analyst firm regularly publishes a chart to track this. But nothing is better than when a new technology fulfills its potential—the internet, wifi and smart phones to name a few. And now, augmented reality (AR) is quickly becoming mainstream as enterprises including Boeing, Caterpillar and others are seeing the benefits of using AR to transform their field operations.

The maturing and integration of smart glasses, wireless communication, mobile devices and augmented reality software is opening up new solutions to age-old problems that utility operations managers and their field crews encounter every day, such as:

–          An expansive set of field assets that make it difficult for field technicians to be experts with all equipment, increasing maintenance time and exposing potential safety challenges

–          Lack of time and qualified inspectors to complete the number of required inspections

–          Safety risks due to lack of experience with the broad array of tools and assets

–          Pressure to reduce costs while improving restoration times

–          Inability to easily record field work for further evaluation, inspection, and training

–          Loss of institutional knowledge due to retirements or attrition.

How does the integration of these technologies, centered around AR, solve these issues?

With instant access to the latest equipment manuals and procedures, workflows, reporting tools, and most importantly, to experts who have real-time visibility into what the field technician sees, with a safe, hands-free tool, eliminates many of the limitations of field crews. It also simplifies and speeds the collection of accurate field data. When integrated with GIS and storm damage assessment systems, AR introduces capabilities often thought impossible due to logistical limitations, such as “live” before/after visuals.

With the growing influx of inexperienced personnel, new options that accelerate learning and provide on-demand training capabilities will become more critical. The attrition of experienced staff and the proliferation of new, more complicated technologies has made the availability of experienced subject matter experts a challenge for many operations teams.

Over the next 5-10 years it is only expected to get worse.  Furthermore, the expansion of regulations, along with higher quality standards, will allow for utilities to enable quick, easy, cost-effective installations, repairs and inspections, critical to their success. AR solutions can help utilities achieve this by maximizing limited resources, ensuring the right person, when needed, is available.

What an ideal solution should offer

It is important to remember, this is not an opportunity to play with a shiny new toy. Any project that has this kind of potential positive disruption requires a disciplined and pragmatic approach. Most of us can point to multiple failed projects that we know could have succeeded.

Technology: Although the technology is secondary to successful realization of the target business goals, it is the key enabler and does warrant careful consideration. When selecting the technology, be aware of these important requirements:

  1. Hands-free interaction. Supports use cases where user interaction must be “hands-free”. Interfacing with the device does NOT rely on hands to control/provide input. Motion-based and other input sensors are used for selection
  2. Integrates well with existing hardware. When hands-free is NOT required, cost savings can be realized by selecting a solution that supports existing hardware, such as currently deployed, ruggedized tablets. Also, if there’s a truck-server component, solutions that can be hosted on existing in-truck laptops can be another cost-saving option.
  3. Operates without WAN connectivity. Field units can operate without WAN connectivity: Data/assessments captured independent of data center or network access (self-contained system). High performance/reliable LAN communication with truck-server for real-time application interaction
  4. Voice-based markup, note taking, photo/video recording on-command
  5. Integrated workflow. Presentation of on-site assets is done in an orderly and managed fashion to work within the constraints of the training
  6. Operates within field safety and environmental constraints

7.  Integrates easily with required personal safety equipment such as hardhats, safety glasses, gloves and associated tools

8. Designed to function in all weather conditions—rain, wind, light snow, heat and cold.

Integration. Any solution, especially one as potentially impactful as this, is only as good as the supporting integration. Integration with which critical systems will depend on the specific use cases, but common integration points include: GIS, OMS, and WAM. In addition, be sure the new technology integrates well across new and existing processes and related procedures. By leveraging a cross-functional design and implementation team, many potential issues and disconnects can be identified and resolved before rollout of even the pilot.

Supportability. This must be addressed both at the individual component level as well as holistically to ensure the complete solution is designed with supportability in mind. While needed for any pilot, it is only during full deployment that the processes and procedures must address compatibility and security challenges associated with upgrades and patches. A compatibility test bed may be appropriate. In addition, support for the end users is critical, especially during the early stages as well as for any new users. This will improve adoption rates, effectiveness and overall satisfaction with the system by both users in the field as well as in the back office.

Security. The selected technologies must comply with the appropriate security policies, such as authentication and encryption. Like other field software-based tools, updates to the software and firmware must be vetted so as not to introduce any potential malware that might threaten the use of the devices. Truck-based servers, if applicable, will need to include security tools to monitor and protect against unauthorized third-party access to the LAN and the network system. Simply put, the field worker should be considered a high-value critical cyber asset and protected appropriately.

How to successfully implement the solution

Now is not the time to reinvent the wheel. A successful implementation of these new technologies can significantly leverage the work of your predecessors. Their hard work, mistakes and successes can enable you to start in the middle, significantly reducing the timeline.  For successful implementation:

Select an unbiased implementation partner. Product-independent systems integrators, with depth of understanding specific to the utility industry, working along-side the in-house team, reduces risk by avoiding previous mistakes, ensures solutions are tailored to specific utility’s needs, and facilitates knowledge transfer, while minimizing impact on overloaded staff.

Map out candidate business use cases. Use a 2×2 matrix, where options are placed in quadrants based on value to business versus difficulty to implement. Working with your SI partner, select one of the options from the High Value, Low Difficulty quadrant. Define a sizeable candidate pilot or two along with the goals of each, including what measurements are desired for comparison. What defines success? 10% reduction of X, 50% reduction of Y?

Use the same 2×2 matrix to prioritize all of the candidates then roll out new use cases over time, in bundles, such as once or twice per year. This ensures continuous growth in value while balancing the need for change and the complexities of rollouts.

Set the team up for success. Change management is an important part of a successful deployment. To improve adoption rates and ensure those participating in the pilot have buy-in, include input from multiple affected and respected individuals who can help by adding credibility. Also, start with high value, low complexity use cases. Keeping it simple to start will demonstrate value while end users get comfortable with the new systems and processes. Be sure those related operational processes and procedures are modified to gain the desired benefit without adding additional work to those affected.  Complement this with extra support before and during the pilot/rollout. You can always reduce the extra support when it is no longer needed.

Transform to achieve or stagnate and wither

The last time there was a convergence of complementary technologies like this, industries, such as co-located data centers, telephony and even home shopping, were completely transformed. Lagging companies in those industries are now extinct as the disruptors, companies seeking and effectively implementing those new technology-enabled solutions, have taken their place on top of the mountain. So, dare to challenge the status quo. History has proven that there is usually a better way”especially when new technologies enable the fundamental transformation of people and processes. Just remember to leverage the experiences of early adopters to avoid repeating mistakes, reduce risk and accelerate the timeline by avoiding starting from the beginning. Technology, while cool, is secondary to achieving the business goals and objectives that the successful implementation of augmented reality can bring to today’s challenges of the utility industry.

About the author: Barry Cioe, vice president at BRIDGE Energy Group, leads the company’s software development, cloud hosting, internal IT services and corporate marketing, including the company’s industry-leading survey-based research. He brings over 20 years of experience in internet security and network infrastructure markets, including leading the deployment and integration of various technologies, including cloud hosted services, enterprise switching and routing, Unified Threat Management systems, security gateways, firewalls, Intrusion Prevention Systems, and Network Access Control solutions.


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