AVL Drives New Paths

By Kathleen Davis, Senior Editor

A demonstration on automated vehicle locating (AVL) is reminiscent of classic video game technology: Little trucks and vans in various tints and tones blipping by on an abstracted, colorful map. Things were simple and direct in those old days of video games. And that, of course, remains the core of AVL–the simple tracking of field operatives.

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Today, however, there’ve been as many AVL advances as advances in video games. New technology and a new focus are being applied to AVL, allowing that colorful map to display more than just trucks. That map can be populated by houses and businesses representing orders and priority accounts and the icons can also appear in various tints, to show work status like open and closed projects. Geographic fences tied to alarms and other forms of inter-related information exist, allowing the viewer to understand how those field operatives are important to the big business picture, rather than simply to the small space of keeping an off-site crew in check.

“AVL by itself is a bit disappointing to most utilities,” Doug Bunker of Clevest said. “It’s a truck on a map. But AVL combined with dispatch, mobile and other existing systems–those combinations are what can make an AVL system really helpful and really interesting.”

One utility interested in the combo is Cuivre River Electric Cooperative, a nonprofit electric utility owned by members in Lincoln, Pike, St. Charles and Warren counties in Missouri. The co-op is working toward a complete solution that includes the Clevest product for mobile data. Other vendors in the equation include Daffron & Associates (CIS), Milsoft Utility Solutions (outage management) and Partner (mapping viewer).

“We want real time data for our collection crews and our service crews that perform outage restoration,” said Anna Pudiwitr, technical specialist, engineering, with the co-op.

“We want our collectors kept up to date on any payments made in the office and our CIS up to date on payments or other actions taken in the field. We also want our restoration crews given predicted devices/member locations displayed on their portable devices to enhance the ability to respond to the outage and eliminate the current flow of paper in the office,” she said.

Keeping an Eye on the Field

Clevest, a newer mobile services software company that employs mostly ex-Ventyx/MDSI personnel, focuses on the co-op space but has started to attract international interest. It started a product in 2005, began marketing it in 2007 and has seen a real boom in clients recently, garnering 13 utility clients in the past seven months with new clients as varied as the East Mississippi Electric Power Association and the China Southern Power Grid Co. Clevest added AVL to its product mix shortly after the company launch, as a part of an overall mobile package that can be deployed all at once, or in modules to match a utility’s needs and resources–with the key theme being that any module integrates with a utility’s existing systems.

Image of AVL and map-based dispatch on a GIS map in an ESRI file.
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“We look at AVL as an added layer of safety in monitoring our crews especially during storm restoration,” Pudiwitr said. “This will help visually track crews working on the same substation circuits. Clevest had a working relationship building with our existing vendors, Daffron and Milsoft, which will give us the value we required for our cooperative’s mobile projects.”

Bunker pointed out that interoperability is important, even with AVL. In older systems, what utility operators often get is a generic vehicle blip on a Web-based street map, but the operator cannot tell what type of vehicle he’s looking at nor can he apply vehicle locations and statuses to internal system maps. This leaves the operator juggling a lot of maps, systems, assumptions and guesses–and leaves AVL back in that old space of just being a system to keep an eye on workers the field.

Bunker said that sometimes his staff comes upon a utility with an old AVL system that is using it just as a type of social deterrent.

“Even more disappointing is that sometimes we’ll hear, “ËœOh, I unplugged it, but the equipment alone keeps the crews in check,'” Bunker said.

Most AVL vendors focus on transportation companies, rather than utilities. Keeping the guys in check is the major need. Utilities have a different set of issues. An eye on the field is still useful, but AVL done right can enhance safety and bring together data from other systems to allow quicker response times to outages, better use of the field crew and a faster way to get through the day’s projects.

Pudiwitr said that this is not a concern for every utility.

“Our cooperative’s main mission for mobile management has never been to micromanage our crews. The purpose for mobile management for us is to provide timely and enhanced information to and from our crews,” she said.

Benefits from Field to Home Base

Utilities need to look for a different set of functions than transportation companies. A utility’s AVL needs to work with other systems, have an ability or function to assign work from within the system and even work on the utility’s own (GIS) system and outage (OMS) maps.

“Most people think AVL is one standalone package. It can be,” Bunker said. “But, to be an effective tool to support utility operations, it should be combined with other systems to make life easier across the board. AVL is beautifully quick and very easy to integrate. We can deploy AVL almost instantly and make a huge change in an operator’s work situation almost instantly.”

Image of AVL and map-based dispatch on a GIS map in an ESRI file.
Click here to enlarge image

AVL systems can be packaged and bundled to help employees across the company, from the operator looking at the map with outage information and vehicle locations to the supervisor sorting through orders and projects electronically.

AVL with orders can create an optimized route and can even help out that truck on a map with turn-by-turn directions to the next assignment. (Clevest has a partnership that allows a utility’s GIS map to be placed on the Garmin, the automotive GIS receiver in the truck.)

“At the beginning, everyone is excited at just basic AVL, at just the truck on a map,” Bunker said. “You’ll hear statements like, “ËœOh, he’s speeding.’ But within a few minutes that wears off and the utility wants to know: Can I use this with my ESRI platform, my viewer or my OMS system? Can I show orders too? Can I assign, unassign or reassign orders from the map view without backing out and into another system? Those systems with just trucks on a map get old pretty fast.”

Cuivre River Electric Cooperative is implementing and performing final tests on its own collections and general service order interface with Clevest and Daffron.

The crews will move from paper to mobile within the next few weeks. Mobile will be integrated into the co-op’s map viewer, which will enhance the work abilities of the field crews, Pudiwitr said.

“They can focus more on the work and less on writing down each process and pushing paper,” she said.

“And with our crews receiving an outage ticket that points directly at the predicted device affected on their maps, they will no longer have just a general idea of the area affected. The next few months are going to transform a lot of the work processes and eliminate wasted time.”

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