From clipboard to cloud
Today, according to Scott Thie, Director of Sales at Getac, “The old clipboard, handwritten ledger, and charts that the entrepreneur carried yesterday long ago have been replaced by a solid computer connected to the cloud—the Internet of Things technology that has become intertwined with utilities and their workers in this Domain as a mobile endpoint connected to a much larger big data platform.”
Today’s powerful PC vendors offer a range of advanced mobile computing solutions for highly durable facilities with integrated applications for field service technicians. These powerful laptops and tablets can withstand the harshest environments. Their applications include smart meter reading, on-site safety, facility and workforce asset management, mobile Geographical Information System (GIS) as well as surveying and other mapping technologies. Powerful hardware has also evolved to provide battery performance that can exceed 30 hours of runtime and wireless capabilities including 5G. Today’s powerful computers can last for 10,000 to 12,000 hours which translates to 5, 6 or 7 years of use in the field.
The utility technician now has instant access to terabytes of information in the field like never before. They can use automated algorithms to optimally run a route using GIS, see all updated work orders in real time, view preventative maintenance plans for inspections, and instantly locate and visualize the location of all utility assets such as shafts, transformers, gas lines, and piping valves – for example Unlimited example. It allows field crews to be more efficient while focusing efforts primarily on dealing with exceptions – enabling proactive management rather than reactive management of ever-changing conditions.
While there are many practical reasons for deploying robust mobile technology in this field, one interesting use case involves predictive analytics for vegetation management. The facility’s vegetation management maintains a facility’s right of way (ROW) to control the growth and encroachment of vegetation—reducing the risk of outages, fires, and other disruptions to the service the tool provides to its community. Software solutions offered by organizations like Arbor Metrics use predictive analytics to help utilities locate, monitor, and predict growth of vegetation such as a tree before a power line falls.
Other important uses of powerful mobile technology in this area include the use of utility asset tags and barcode readers. Rear cameras in rugged devices can also take pictures of utility assets and store them as data.
The facilities even use rugged computers as powerful controllers to operate the drones so crews can get a clear view from the screen while in the field while maintaining a line of location on the drone and staying a safe distance on the ground from fallen wires and swaying trees, allowing For field workers the ability to assess damage. While still in its infancy, augmented reality (AR) is becoming more viable with powerful hardware by allowing live viewing via the device’s camera and on-screen AR metadata in real time. All while being in the elements.
Most importantly, when powerful computing technology is used in the field, it always collects and aggregates valuable data about its infrastructure and distributed workforce. It essentially becomes a big data operation. The use of rugged hardware makes pulling large amounts of data more automated and efficient. This data can then be analyzed for a myriad of useful purposes by facilities using descriptive, predictive, and didactic analytics powered by machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI). Useful, data-driven decisions can then be made from the insights.
Overall, the huge benefit of adopting a rugged computing solution—rather than using a consumer grade or “disposal” device like a standard iPad tablet or a ready-to-use laptop—is that it provides utility workers with a powerful, tested, military-standard computer It makes their work and daily workflow more efficient and impervious to failure. Robust devices, such as body armor, are designed to be easily used in the challenging outdoor environmental conditions that utility field technicians are regularly exposed to. Providing operators with durable computers ensures that these devices are actually used and not neglected by the frustrated utility worker due to a critical endpoint failure. Computer downtime, as it is commonly referred to, means lost opportunity for the line guy and, more importantly, more frustration for customers waiting for a solution to the power outage.
While investor-owned facilities (IOUs) may present significant capital expenditures for an IT platform, if they skimp on hardware for mobile endpoints with non-durable hardware, the deployment could be severely undermined. “Utility workers won’t use a portable device the way they were supposed to if they can’t see the screen in the field, if they have to keep the device off and on constantly to alleviate concerns about temperature and battery life, or even the fear of dropping the device with Knowing very well that it will not continue that fall,” said Med Malek, regional sales manager for utilities, at Getac. “All of this creates a field worker-justified ‘solution’ environment that translates into one step forward and two steps back.”
Although utility workers like the Wichita lineman may still climb poles – until they are eventually replaced by robots or automated machines – there is no doubt that technology has irreversibly changed the landscape in the utility space. It has definitely changed the way the daily workflow is routinely carried out in the field as well as the huge amount of data the facilities collect. To keep everything running, a robust mobile solution is vital on endpoints.
Dirk Levinsohn, a “recovered” Wall Street consultant and attorney, often writes on topics related to the technology industry, program management, marketing, business operations, and law. He is often assigned to write or “wordpress” important business documents and proposals to make them more persuasive to deliver results.