From clipboard to cloud


In the 1960s, legendary country singer Glen Campbell released his classic song Wichita lineman about a journeyman utility worker on the vast open plains of the American Midwest “searching the sun for another overload”. If that perfectly crafted song were to be rewritten today, that same lineman or field technician would probably be looking for a dashboard or GIS-enabled app on a rugged computing device to more efficiently find that ” overload,” while collecting invaluable field data to better manage utility assets, labor, and customers.

Today, according to Scott Thie, Sales Director of Getac, “The old-fashioned clipboard, handwritten ledger and blueprints once carried by yesterday’s lineman have long since been replaced by a rugged computer connected to the cloud – an Internet of Things technology that has intertwined with utilities and their field workers as a mobile solution endpoint connected to a much larger big data platform.

Rugged computer vendors today offer a range of sophisticated mobile computing solutions to utilities equipped with extremely durable devices with built-in applications for utility field service technicians. These rugged laptops and tablets can withstand the toughest environments. Their applications include smart meter reading, site security, utility asset and workforce management, mobile geographic information system (GIS) as well as surveying and other technologies. of cartography. Rugged devices have also evolved, offering battery performance that can exceed 30 hours of battery life and wireless capabilities, including 5G. Today’s rugged computers can continue to operate for 10,000 to 12,000 hours, which translates to 5, 6 or even 7 years of use in the field.

A utility technician now has instant access to terabytes of field information like never before. They can use automated algorithms to optimally execute a route with GIS, see all updated work orders in real time, view preventive maintenance plans for inspections, and immediately identify and visualize the location of all utility assets such as poles, transformers, gas lines, and plumbing valves, to name a few. This allows field teams to be more efficient while focusing their efforts primarily on exception handling, enabling proactive rather than reactive management of ever-changing conditions.

While there are many practical reasons for deploying robust mobile technology in the field, one very interesting use case is for predictive analytics for vegetation management. Utility vegetation management maintains a utility’s right-of-way to control vegetation growth and encroachment, reducing the risk of outages, fires, and other service disruptions that a utility public provides to its community. Software solutions provided by organizations such as Arbor Metrics use predictive analytics to help utilities locate, monitor and predict the growth of vegetation such as a tree before it drops a power line.

Other important uses of rugged mobile technology in the field involve the use of utility asset tagging and barcode scanners. The rear-facing cameras of rugged devices can also take photos of utility assets and store them as data.

Utilities even use rugged computers as powerful controllers to operate drones so crews can have a clear view of the screen while in the field keeping a line of sight to the drone and staying at a safe distance to the ground from downed wires and tottering trees, allowing field workers to assess damage. Although still in its infancy, Augmented Reality (AR) is becoming more applicable using rugged devices by enabling live viewing through the device’s camera and AR metadata that displays on screen. in real time. While being in the elements.

More importantly, when robust 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. Using rugged devices makes mining large amounts of data more automated and efficient. This data can then be analyzed for a myriad of useful purposes by utilities using descriptive, predictive, and prescriptive analytics enhanced by machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI). Useful data-driven decisions can then be made based on the information gathered.

Overall, the huge advantage of adopting a rugged computing solution – as opposed to using a consumer-grade or “disposable” device like a standard iPad tablet or standard laptop – is that it provides field workers with a rugged computer that is military-standard tested and compliant, making their daily work and workflow much more efficient and failure-proof. Rugged devices, like bulletproof vests, are designed to be easily used in harsh outdoor environmental conditions regularly encountered by utility field technicians. Equipping operators with rugged computers ensures that these devices will actually be used and not ignored by a frustrated worker due to a severe endpoint failure. IT downtime, as it is generically called, equates to lost opportunity for the lineman and, more importantly, additional frustration for customers waiting for a resolution to an outage.

While an investor-owned utility (IOU) can make a significant outlay for an information technology platform, if it skimps on hardware for mobile devices by using unrugged devices, deployment could be seriously compromised. “Utility field workers will not use a mobile device as intended if they cannot see the screen in the field, if they have to turn the device off and on constantly to mitigate temperature issues and battery life, or even the fear of dropping the device knowing full well that it wouldn’t survive that drop,” said Meade Maleki, Regional Sales Manager for Utilities, Getac. All of this creates an environment of user-justified “overrides” by the fieldworker, resulting in one step forward and two steps back.”

Even though utility workers like the Wichita lineman can still climb poles — until they’re eventually replaced by robots or automatons — there’s no doubt that technology has changed irreversibly. the landscape of the utility space. It has certainly changed the way the daily workflow is routinely carried out in the field as well as the large amount of data collected by utilities. To make it all work, a robust mobile solution is essential for endpoints.

Dirk Levinsohn, a Wall Street “recovery” consultant and lawyer, writes frequently on topics related to the tech industry, program management, marketing, business operations, and the law. He is often hired to draft or draft critical business documents and proposals to make them more compelling to drive results.

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