Augmented reality

Augmented reality: transformation in utility operations

GlobalData analyst Amit Sharma takes a look at how augmented reality could improve plant and machinery asset servicing and personnel knowledge.

In the utility space, “big data” is bringing in actionable insights and values but the key to Augmented Reality (AR) 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. 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, speed power restoration and help address the challenge of an aging, retiring utility workforce facilitating the preservation of institutional knowledge. According to the industry experts, the Energy and the utility sector are expected to spend more than $15bn 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. One of the use cases for AR is in employee training and assists 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 on their proficiency faster than the conventional training methods.

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 a piece 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 mobilize the crew with the specific skills to expedite repairs and power restoration much faster than a manual response does. 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 devices manufacturing firms are also making huge investments in the AR such as Atheer, DAQRI, Google, Microsoft, ODG, Magic Leap among others with AR Sunglasses, helmets and other devices being largely developed and experimented 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. 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. It is expected that the utility segment can 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 visualization 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, visualization 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. It may be through consumers through their mobile devices, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)/unmanned aerial system (UAS) along with UAV’s 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. 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 are set to take off in a big way and will bring in new value to the energy sector.

The enterprise is ripe for disruption from AR, which promises to make workflows more efficient and safe and workers more productive. With systems and devices 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 special core committee that allows the technology to develop and flourish at organizational scale. The technology is at its nascent stage and most of the organizations lack in-house AR/VR expertise. It is crucial for the organization to conduct specialized training in building internal capabilities. The organization can also outsource or partner with specialized teams and institutions to leverage talent and technology. A centralized unit can lead the overall planning and execution, improving governance and making best use of resources.

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Big Data in Utilities – Thematic Research