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AVL Offers Low-cost, High-benefit Field Force Solution

By Steven M. Brown, Senior Associate Editor

Location, location, location. The three most important considerations in making a real estate purchase are also critical factors in a utility’s management of its mobile assets.

National Grid has achieved greater productivity and safety as a result of its 470-vehicle roll-out of satellite-based automatic vehicle location technology. Photo courtesy of National Grid.
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Electric utilities have invested a great deal of time and money in mapping out digital representations of the exact locations of their fixed assets-poles, circuits, substations, etc. But the exact, real-time location of mobile assets is generally missing from the overall asset management picture.

Although automatic vehicle location (AVL) technology is not necessarily new, it’s safe to say most utilities have yet to realize its many benefits. The standard non-automatic vehicle location strategy employed by many utilities still relies heavily on voice calls over two-way radio and a dispatcher’s ability to remember where a service vehicle was at the time of the last communication. But there’s a better, more efficient way.

With AVL technology deployed in 470 vehicles in its New England operating division, National Grid is one company that has taken advantage of a relatively low-cost, high-benefit complement to traditional field force automation systems. In presentations at recent industry conferences, National Grid has referred to its AVL implementation as a “technical slam dunk,” in terms of not only its operational benefits, but also its quick return on investment for the company. So far, National Grid has seen the benefits of AVL in increased productivity and safety, but greater benefits are likely yet to come as the company looks to integrate data generated by the AVL system into applications such as outage management, automated dispatch and its AM/FM/GIS system.

A Satellite-based Safety Net

The AVL system in place at National Grid is a satellite-based technology supplied by Massachusetts-based Outerlink Corp. The system consists of in-vehicle transceiver units that relay signals to Outerlink’s ground station in Reston, Va., by way of geostationary satellites. A centralized software package in place at National Grid communicates with the Outerlink ground station to pull in the generated data and distribute it to upward of 60 desktop computers running Outerlink’s CommTrack and CommText AVL software. National Grid also stores the collected data in an Oracle database.

The vehicle-mounted transceiver units can relay not only GPS-based location data, but also can send up to eight additional status notifications, such as whether or not a vehicle is parked or whether a truck’s bucket is in use. Those additional pieces of data make the AVL system a multi-faceted tool with uses beyond just putting a picture of a bucket truck on a dispatcher’s digital map.

Michael Feinman, National Grid’s manager of protection and process engineering, said the ability to stay apprised of worker safety was a big selling point when his company decided to implement the system.

National Grid’s traditional “Code Blue” emergency procedure involved a line crew worker making a voice call of “code blue” over the radio to provide information on the location and nature of the emergency. With the AVL system it now has in place, the company has been able to supplement this procedure with automatic emergency notification. Now, a crew member can engage a “Code Blue” switch, which works with but is separate from the truck-mounted transceiver unit, to send immediate emergency information back to the main office. Through the AVL system, exact information on the location and identity of the vehicle involved in the emergency is sent back to National Grid dispatchers. Given the system’s satellite communications infrastructure, a line worker can send out an emergency call from virtually anywhere in National Grid’s territory, and the message will get through. The ability to get that level of coverage was a major factor in Grid’s decision to go with the satellite-based system.

“In our service territory, there are a lot of areas that simply aren’t served by any type of cellular infrastructure,” Feinman said. “CDPD really wasn’t an option for us if we wanted real-time vehicle location and communication with our trucks. With satellite, the coverage issue went away.”

Besides having the ability to use AVL as a far-reaching safety net for field crews, National Grid has gained a noticeable productivity boost from the system. When National Grid did its cost-justification of the system, it did so based on productivity alone. Productivity increases result mainly from knowing the exact location of individual vehicles and being able to dispatch the closest crew to a job site. Feinman said that given the high value of vehicles and field crews, even a modest productivity increase would likely have been enough to justify the AVL implementation.

Now fully rolled out, Feinman said the system has exceeded Grid’s expectations in many ways.

Feinman said prior to the implementation, dispatchers kept track of vehicle locations on paper or in their heads-an inexact method to say the least.

“They (the dispatchers) might know that a vehicle was in a certain location 20 minutes ago,” Feinman said. “If there was more trouble in the area, they would call that vehicle, but it might be 10 miles away by then. They might get sent back to the location, when we might have another truck right around the corner and not know it.”

By decreasing “windshield time” as trucks drive past each other to jobs, particularly in storm situations, AVL has helped Grid boost the efficiency of its field crews and boost the level of service it provides customers.

Part of a Bigger Picture

Safety and productivity increases have proved AVL’s value to National Grid, but the company anticipates greater benefits ahead through integration with other systems. National Grid plans to eventually migrate AVL data into the company’s AM/FM/GIS. Other future integrations would make the system exponentially more valuable to Grid.

“It’s a standalone system now, but we recognize that we can tie it in with an outage management system (OMS) or an automated dispatch system,” Feinman said.

Since data from the AVL system is stored in database files, such integration is fairly straightforward. Simple SQL queries can pull the data from the AVL database and read it into other applications.

Joseph Plonski, Outerlink vice president of marketing and sales, said great potential benefits exist from integrating an AVL system with an OMS. He refers to outage situations as “pseudo-military” operations, where assets are juggled on a moment to moment basis. Data on the location of those assets-both fixed and mobile-is integral to trouble management.

“There’s so much emphasis on getting geographic information on the physical infrastructure in place,” Plonski said, “but I think there’s a lack of understanding of the importance of having real-time location information on your mobile crews.”

Plonski said many companies may not understand this potential benefit, because they believe they already have the technology in place. “You walk around a trade show and everyone shows you maps with pictures of trucks on them,” Plonski said. “What people don’t realize is that the location is based on a voice call. It’s not a live updated position. People don’t realize the truck’s not really there.”

But National Grid knows exactly where its 470 AVL-equipped vehicles are-at all times. As the company migrates that data into other systems, the all-important value of location can only increase.

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