Armed and Augmented

How an Emerging Technology Will Impact the Utility Industry Work Force

For many avid football fans, the familiar overlay of the line of scrimmage and the first-down marker is a common visual aid that makes the game more interesting to watch. The technology underneath this is a manifestation of augmented reality (AR).

In the utility space, “big data” may well be driving actionable insights and value these days, but the under-appreciated key to valuable insights is making the right data available to the right person at the right time and place in a manner that is simple and intuitive.

Bringing AR to utility field personnel can provide an excellent way of presenting data when and where it’s most needed. One aspect that may influence the AR adoption curve is how to adapt all of these sources of data and optimally use them within the utility industry field force.

It makes sense for those in the industry to become familiar with this solution today, as it’s likely to be widely available in the near future. Its benefits appear to be both practical and realizable. Two valuable use cases come easily to mind and several demonstration projects are currently underway.

AR may benefit investor-owned, municipal and cooperative utilities in different ways, but all appear to have use cases that could help business processes, speed power restoration when outages occur and even help address the challenge of an aging, retiring utility workforce facilitating the preservation of institutional knowledge.

AR, VR, MR Defined

AR can be defined as a live, direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented or overlaid by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. The virtual first down line in football is an example of AR.

Virtual reality (VR) commonly refers to placing the user in the center of an immersive multimedia/computer-simulated reality that simulates a physical presence in the real world or an imagined world, allowing the user to interact with that world. This is often the case with modern-day gaming systems.

Mixed reality (MR), also referred to as hybrid reality, is the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments and visualizations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time.

Though each of these virtual approaches may in time produce value for power utilities, it is AR that will likely come first and whose value proposition is perhaps easiest to grasp.

AR Use Cases for Power Utilities

The simplest use case that comes to mind is a utility responding to an outage. Outage notification may come from various sources and in different forms, but once a utility professional is “on the ground,” he or she wants to assess the damage and expedite repairs. Imagine a lineman with a mobile tablet using the camera or video function to capture images of damaged equipment. The AR aspect would be an overlay of data showing the asset type, its product number, maintenance history and so forth to streamline ordering replacements. The field technician can immediately order the correct parts and mobilize the crew with the specific skills needed for repair work. That simple act will expedite repairs and power restoration much faster than a manual response does today. ERPI, Duke Energy and others have been exploring this and have demonstrated the viability of this as a tool of the future.

The second use case might come into play when a field technician is in place but lacks the knowledge, experience or access to data that he or she needs. An AR-equipped mobile device or glasses would enable a subject matter expert (SME) who is not present (and who could be anywhere) to advise the field technician on what steps to take. This approach produces a virtual SME with remote eyes, ears and hands who can guide a field technician with less experience. This use case has the added benefit of helping soften the impacts of an aging/retiring workforce and the potential loss of institutional knowledge by placing former field technicians in the role of virtual SME.

New Sources of Data

Realistically, these scenarios are possible today. Mobile devices have GPS for location-based data. Utility asset management groups have comprehensive data on grid-related equipment. A few pieces to the puzzle, however, remain missing or simply need to be addressed.

First, new sources of data relevant to AR for field technicians are being explored, refined and tied into such a system.

One source is consumers/customers and their mobile devices, which have camera and video capabilities and social media-based means to share the results. Notifying the utility of an outage and damaged assets has never been easier. A tweet or text message with a photo or video of a damaged asset may well preclude even a site visit by a utility’s field crews.

Another source is the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and its context, the unmanned aerial system (UAS), which describes the related technologies such as the UAV’s sensors, communication capabilities and on-the-ground or remote pilots. UAVs/UASs can produce visual, GPS, infrared LiDar, PhoDar and other data for subsequent processing and actionable insights.

In both the case of the consumer and the UAV/UAS, advanced, automated image processing and analysis must be developed to speed the process of power restoration. (EPRI and other parties are already at work on this need.)

In addition, new sources of data, both internal to a utility and external to it, are likely to make their appearance in the near future. Think of the Internet of Things (IoT) that promises to tie together formerly disparate devices, networks and databases to provide data-driven insights.

Many of these new data sources will provide synergies as they are tied together through integration with existing and new utility systems. Clearly asset management, outage management systems, distribution management systems, geographic information systems and other existing utility applications will improve with new data sources and those AR overlays and virtual SMEs will in turn improve as well.

New Possibilities

At some point along the way, new possibilities opening up for AR’s cousins, VR and MR, are likely to appear. In terms of VR, immersing the user in a multimedia/computer-simulated reality that allows interaction could revolutionize training. Classrooms and books may still provide benefits, but hands-on training without the hazards promises to serve myriad industry verticals. MR that merges real and virtual worlds takes that concept to another level, where training is specific to an actual environment rather than an idealized one.

Most of the advancements described here are currently the subject of intense research and development, as they promise great strides in safety, speed and efficiency for people and processes. Their imminent appearance in the marketplace will benefit the power utilities and other enterprises that have thought through the implications for their traditional practices.

Ron Chebra, EnerNex vice president of grid modernization, is a recognized thought leader and industry expert in utility modernization. He has a deep operating knowledge in technology solutions in areas such as microgrids, renewable energy integration, smart grid, distribution automation, advanced metering infrastructure and demand response. Chebra also is a long-time member of the DistribuTECH conference advisory board.

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