Augmented reality: Transformation in utility operations


In the utility space, “big data” is bringing in actionable insights and values but the key to augmented reality is providing valuable insights by making the right data available to the right person at the right time and place in a manner that is simple and intuitive.

This article was originally published in Smart Energy International 3-2019. Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here.

Augmented reality (AR) is a technology that superimposes digital information and media, such as 3D models and videos, upon the real world through smartphone, tablet, PC, or connected glasses. 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. AR may benefit investor-owned, municipal and cooperative utilities in improving business processes. It can speed power restoration and help address the challenge of an aging, retiring utility workforce by facilitating the preservation of institutional knowledge.

According to the industry experts, the energy and the utility sector are expected to spend more than $15 billion annually by 2020 on AR technology.

AR and VR technologies are enabling an outcome based combination of competency and real-time risk assessment that has resulted in this multi-billion dollar segment within the wide spectrum of automation solutions the energy and utility sector is increasingly gearing up for. In the long run, these emerging technologies like AR, VR, AI, robotics and digital transformation will bring in acceleration in revenue growth, increase organizations’ agility and improve risk management.

The utility industry faces some significant workforce challenges ahead as the baby boomers retire, which was highlighted by a 2017 Department of Energy utility workforce assessment. Industry hiring managers often report that lack of candidate training, experience, or technical skills are major reasons why replacement personnel can be challenging to find – especially in electric power generation.

AR can be used in training employees and assisting new workers. 2D diagrams of complex components can be enriched with 3D models. Employees can rotate and interact with the 3D models to gain a better understanding of the equipment. This enables more in-depth training and faster information retention. Employees tend to improve their proficiency faster than with conventional training methods. Another opportunity is to expedite equipment maintenance. With augmented reality, technicians in the field have immediate access to expert knowledge.

They can access complete documentation for all the operation’s equipment on their tablets.

Technicians can overlay a 3D model on an actual piece of equipment. They may also view the internal components of equipment and explore its inner workings. System repairs and upgrades are faster than ever before. Also the AR would provide 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 mobilise the crew with the specific skills to expedite repairs and power restoration much faster than a manual response can.

The Electric Power Research Institute is working with large utilities such as Duke Energy, Consolidated Edison, EDF, Korea Electric Power Corporation and others on how AR could fit into the industry’s workforce. Many AR device manufacturing firms are also making huge investments in AR such as Atheer, DAQRI, Google, Microsoft, ODG and Magic Leap among others AR sunglasses, helmets and other devices are being developed and experimented with for various applications. There are developments on different AR devices from heads-up displays (HUD), holographic displays, smart glasses to handheld/smartphone based. There are also systems being designed that combine GIS technology with AR to display infrastructure such as pipes, lines, cables and other assets in-field and in real time. These devices are so efficient that an eye-flick or tap or audio command can call up the instruction manual. Don’t recognize a part? An instant search mechanism is at hand. Want a demo – a video will play. Need back-up? The gadget will call a colleague.

Additionally, the device will facilitate a drone capable not just of inspecting pipelines, masts and power lines, but also collecting copious amount of data for myriad usage and analytics appear in demand. The utility segment is expecting to achieve a 15% – 20% increase in efficiency with augmented reality.

AR also comes into play when a field technician is in place but lacks the knowledge, experience or access to data required. An AR equipped mobile device or glasses would enable a subject matter expert to advise the field technician on what steps to take. The technology also improves operational safety, allowing for better visualisation of underground assets and complex components, reducing accidents.

Automation vendors are claiming plant and output downtime reduction by as much as 30%, and as a domino effect, an uptick in throughput by as much as 10 times over.

Other specific use cases cited include supply chain logistics, asset location and inspection, remote assistance, visualisation of equipment and structures with layered data, visualisation of buried and other hidden assets and situational awareness.

There are various data sources that can provide feed to the AR systems. They may be from consumers through their mobile devices, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)/ unmanned aerial systems (UAS) along with UAV sensors, communication capabilities and on-the-ground or remote pilots. 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.

The Internet of Things (IoT) will also play its role by putting together disparate devices, networks and databases to provide data-driven insights. Asset management, outage management systems, distribution management systems, geographic information systems and other existing utility applications will improve with new data sources by integrating the existing and new utility systems. These in turn will improve the AR overlays and virtual subject matter expert as well.

Augmented reality (AR) – and its variants virtual reality, assisted reality and mixed reality – is set to take off in a big way and offers to bring in new value to the energy sector. The enterprise is ripe for disruption from AR, which promises to make workflows more efficient and safer, and workers more productive. With systems and devices now having reached an affordable price point, these solutions that enable knowledge sharing and make workplace productivity tools are great opportunities for investment on the technological front.

Successful implementation of AR requires utilities to establish a proper governance structure by a committee that allows the technology to develop and flourish at organizational scale. The technology is in its nascent stage and most of the organizations lack in-house AR/VR expertise. It is crucial for the organization to conduct specialised training in building internal capabilities. The organization can also outsource or partner with specialised teams and institutions to leverage talent and technology. A centralised unit can lead the overall planning and execution, improving governance and making the best use of resources. SEI

About the author

Amit Sharma is practice head for the consulting division energy segment at GDRC.

He manages the Power, Nuclear and Smart Grid teams at GlobalData and works with companies on issues within these industries that affect their performance.

About the company

GlobalData is a leading global provider of commercial energy consultancy services and market intelligence.