Over the past two decades, technological advancements have been reshaping the utility sector, promising to revolutionize the way workers in the industry operate. One tool that underpins this transformation is Geospatial (or Geographic to some) Information System (GIS) data, which, when combined with emerging technologies, is poised to improve efficiency, safety, and overall service delivery.
GIS data informs and impacts many different business processes. Electric utilities rely on extensive networks of infrastructure, such as power lines, and telecommunication cables. Geospatial data provides accurate and up-to-date information about the location, condition, and attributes of this infrastructure. With this information, utilities can effectively plan, operate, and maintain their systems, reducing downtime, improving efficiency, and extending the lifespan of assets.
Geographic Information System (GIS) Data: The Foundation of Modern Utility Work
GIS data serves as the bedrock upon which modern utility work is built. It merges geographical information with data from various sources, providing utility companies with the tools needed to visualize, analyze, and manage their infrastructure effectively. By creating a digital representation (or digital twin) of the physical world, GIS systems enable utility workers to access vital information in real time.
Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) as a digital twin is a powerful and innovative approach that allows utilities to create a virtual representation of their physical infrastructure and assets. This digital twin leverages geospatial data and technology to enhance the management, operation, and decision-making processes within the utility sector.
GIS combines various types of geospatial data, such as maps, satellite imagery, topography, and infrastructure information compiled from field surveys into a unified digital platform. Comprehensive data integration is essential for creating an accurate and detailed digital representation of the utility’s assets.
While GIS data already plays a crucial role in utility work, its integration with certain emerging technologies promises to usher in even more significant advancements for the industry. This article explores how GIS data, integrated with four groundbreaking technologies, is set to transform the work of utility professionals, making their tasks more efficient, safer, and more responsive to the ever-evolving demands of modern infrastructure.
Augmented Reality (AR): Transforming Field Operations
Augmented Reality (AR) is on the cusp of revolutionizing how utility workers conduct field operations. AR superimposes computer-generated information onto the real-world environment, providing workers with valuable data and instructions (via images and video, for example) directly within their line of sight. AR can also include information provided to the field in the form of tactual signals (called “haptics”) or audio information and signals. These types of AR can improve the safety of the worker when they are in areas where their situational awareness is impaired by intense concentration on a task or in noisy areas where hazards might not be noticed.
When combined with GIS data, AR can significantly enhance the efficiency and safety of utility work:
Enhanced Training and Onboarding: AR can assist in training new utility workers by providing step-by-step instructions and visual aids. AR can also be used to create immersive and interactive training modules that help bridge the skills gap and reduce the learning curve for newcomers. New utility workers can use AR headsets to learn about equipment, safety procedures, and troubleshooting techniques in a hands-on virtual environment. This not only accelerates the onboarding process but also improves retention and comprehension of critical information.
AR and Asset Management: GIS data empowers utility companies to maintain comprehensive records of their assets, including pipelines, cables, transformers, and distribution points. Utility workers equipped with AR devices can conduct visual inspections of assets while receiving real-time data on their condition. GIS data aids in pinpointing the asset’s location and history, facilitating quicker and more informed decisions. These digital records enhance asset management by enabling predictive maintenance, reducing downtime, and optimizing resource allocation.
In complex, unfamiliar situations, or emergencies, field workers can connect with experts remotely who can provide guidance and assistance in real time through AR. By streaming their field of view, workers can receive expert advice, which can be crucial for making quick and informed decisions. Experts can view the worker’s perspective and guide them through troubleshooting or repairs, reducing the need for additional on-site personnel.
Safety Enhancements: AR can overlay safety information and warnings, such as hazard zones and evacuation routes, directly onto the worker’s field of view. This ensures that utility workers are constantly aware of potential risks and can take appropriate precautions.
Internet of Things (IoT): Enabling Smart Infrastructure Monitoring
The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to the network of interconnected devices and sensors that collect and exchange data over the Internet and has begun to reshape utility infrastructure into smart grids and networks. IoT devices and sensors are being deployed throughout utility grids to collect real-time data on asset performance, consumption patterns, and environmental conditions. For utility workers, IoT technologies can be harnessed to transform infrastructure monitoring and maintenance. Utility workers often need access to near real-time data while performing tasks. AR can provide them with a heads-up display that overlays vital, near real-time information onto their field of vision. For example, when repairing a power line, an AR headset can display the voltage, current, and load data, ensuring that workers have accurate information at all times. When integrated with GIS data, IoT offers several key advantages for utility workers:
Smart Sensors: IoT-enabled smart sensors can be installed on utility infrastructure, such as transformers. Often, these smart sensors are just more intelligent and more connected versions of traditional utility field devices. These sensors continuously monitor various parameters like temperature, pressure, and humidity, transmitting real-time data to a central control system. This allows utility companies to detect anomalies and potential issues before they escalate into major problems.
Predictive Maintenance: IoT sensors embedded in utility assets continuously monitor their performance. When combined with GIS data, this information can accurately predict maintenance needs, reducing downtime and costly emergency repairs. With the help of IoT data analytics and machine learning algorithms, utility companies can implement predictive maintenance strategies. By analyzing the data from sensors, the system can predict when equipment is likely to fail, enabling utility workers to schedule maintenance proactively. This approach minimizes downtime and reduces the risk of catastrophic failures.
Near Real-time Monitoring and Control: Utility workers can access real-time data on asset conditions and grid performance through their GIS interfaces. This data enables proactive decision-making, such as rerouting resources in response to emerging issues. IoT technology enables remote monitoring and control of utility infrastructure. Utility workers can access real-time data and control equipment from a centralized location. This capability is particularly valuable for managing assets in remote or hazardous locations, reducing the need for workers to physically visit these sites.
Fault Detection: IoT sensors can identify faults or anomalies in the infrastructure immediately. When integrated with GIS, this information provides precise location data, expediting response times and minimizing service disruptions. GIS data can also enhance customer service by providing accurate information about service areas, outage updates, and estimated restoration times. This transparency fosters customer satisfaction and trust
Resource Optimization: IoT-driven data allows utility companies to optimize resource allocation, ensuring that crews and equipment are deployed where they are needed most, reducing costs, and enhancing service quality. IoT technologies can help utility companies optimize energy consumption by providing insights into usage patterns and identifying areas where energy can be saved. This not only reduces operational costs but also contributes to sustainability efforts.
Environmental Monitoring: IoT sensors can also monitor environmental factors, such as air and water quality. Utility workers can use this data to ensure compliance with environmental regulations and respond quickly to any pollution or contamination incidents.
Drones: Aerial Insights for Utility Workers
Another emerging technology that is revolutionizing utility operations is drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Drones have rapidly gained prominence in the utility sector, enhancing, and sometimes replacing field crews. These flying devices equipped with cameras and sensors provide utility workers with a unique vantage point for inspecting and maintaining infrastructure. When coupled with GIS data, drones offer a range of benefits:
Infrastructure Inspection: Drones equipped with high-resolution cameras and sensors can capture detailed images and data about utility assets and their surroundings. GIS data integration enables precise location tagging and analysis of this information. Terrestrial field crews often do not have the perspective necessary to inspect the top aspects of utility assets.
Remote Monitoring: Drones can be deployed to monitor remote and challenging-to-reach locations regularly. As expensive as deploying utility field works is, the drone is a low-cost alternative to reach assets in challenging or dangerous terrain. They can detect issues such as wear and tear, vegetation interference, or structural damage, allowing utility workers to address these problems proactively.
Environmental Impact Assessment: GIS data paired with drone imagery can aid utility companies in assessing the environmental impact of their operations. This information can be crucial for compliance and sustainability initiatives.
Emergency Response: During natural disasters or emergencies, drones can quickly survey affected areas, providing utility companies with critical information to plan and execute emergency response efforts effectively. Dynamic emergencies such as wildfires can quickly turn deadly. Drones can report on the location of the fires and changes in wind patterns caused by the fires that can threaten crews. Drones are being deployed to act as message repeaters where line-of-sight communications technologies are negated by terrain or smoke.
The Synergy of Technologies: Leveraging GIS Data
While each of these technologies has the potential to revolutionize utility work independently, their true power lies in their synergy with GIS data. GIS serves as the connective tissue, allowing utility workers to harness the full potential of these innovations seamlessly. For instance:
- AR devices can access GIS data to provide real-time information about asset locations and historical data during inspections.
- IoT sensors can transmit data directly into GIS systems, providing utility workers with instant insights into asset performance and conditions.
- Drones can integrate GIS data to create detailed maps and 3D models of infrastructure, aiding in precise planning and maintenance.
- GIS systems can centralize data from all these technologies, offering a comprehensive view of the utility network for efficient decision-making.
IKE Office Pro pole record software can serve as a permanent home for pole data (acting as a GIS) or it can easily integrate data into a central GIS.
Challenges and Considerations
GIS acts as an asset tracking system, a model for planning and operations, an essential work management tool, a situational awareness center, and a single source of truth for many data-dependent systems and subsystems. While the convergence of GIS data and these emerging technologies promises immense benefits for utility workers, several challenges and considerations must be addressed:
Data Accuracy and Completeness According to the EPRI Guidebook on Geospatial Information System (GIS)Data Quality, GIS quality issues are primarily related to:
- Information gaps, such as the omission of key data.
- Redundancies with other systems, such as when data is captured in many systems, and the data is inconsistent or requires duplicate data entry to update.
- Lack of currency with an “as-built” system, such as untimely work order completion, creating a backlog.
- Inaccurately representing an actual system in the field.
- Inaccurate or unavailable land-based data.
- A GIS model that accommodates “bad” data.
Data Security: Utility companies must ensure the security and privacy of sensitive data, particularly when integrating IoT and GIS systems. Robust cybersecurity measures are critical to protect against potential breaches.
Workforce Training: The adoption of these technologies necessitates adequate training for utility workers to maximize their potential. Training programs should be designed to accommodate both existing staff and new recruits.
Regulatory Compliance: Utility companies must navigate complex regulatory environments, which may vary from region to region. Compliance with safety, environmental, and data privacy regulations is paramount.
Initial Investment: Implementing these technologies and integrating them with GIS systems may require a significant upfront investment. Companies need to assess the long-term benefits to justify these costs.
The future of utility work is undergoing a profound transformation driven by Geographic Information System (GIS) data and the integration of emerging technologies. Augmented Reality (AR), the Internet of Things (IoT), Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), and GIS are converging to enhance the efficiency, safety, and responsiveness of utility operations. By leveraging GIS data, utility workers gain a comprehensive and real-time understanding of their infrastructure, enabling proactive decision-making and streamlined operations.
As utility companies continue to invest in these technologies, they are poised to meet the evolving demands of an increasingly complex and interconnected world. The result will be more reliable, efficient, and sustainable utility services, ultimately benefiting both workers and the communities they serve.