HomeRegional NewsAfricaAugmented reality meets how things are at electric utilities

Augmented reality meets how things are at electric utilities

As a guide to solving the growing skills gap, the US-based Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), in their programme Capturing Undocumented Worker-Job-Knowledge, identified problems related to the loss of tacit knowledge. EPRI developed and evaluated potential solutions and produced practical guidelines to the growing skills gap between job requirements and available labour pool in electric utilities.

The article appeared in ESI Africa Issue 1-2021.
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Ageing analogue infrastructure and rapidly retiring workforce contribute to a new generation of workers who find themselves unable to quickly and effectively solve problems. Younger personnel trained on digital systems, in reality, end up working with outdated analogue equipment.

Another challenge, exacerbated by the retiring workforce and slow pipeline, is the high demand for the relatively few available experts. Related costs result in downtime as power outages take longer than necessary to repair because technicians with firsthand knowledge of legacy systems are in increasingly short supply.

Experienced workers possess a great deal of undocumented, tacit knowledge that is not readily available to new workers through procedures or training. Although sometimes established to transfer this knowledge, mentoring programmes fail due to fewer employees (because of the retirement of experienced workers) available to provide this expert mentoring.

The EPRI programme recommended data gathering through knowledge auditing, critical incident/decision methods, lessons learned documentation, and observing workers. Simultaneously, they suggest performing and verbalising tasks and video recording of simulated scenarios as ways to address the growing skills gap between job requirements and the available labour pool in electric utilities. Other solutions included on-the-job training and reskilling, but these traditional training methods can take years.

Augmenting reality to improve performance

One approach to meeting these challenges could be Augmented Reality (AR) technology. AR adds information to the existing environment and can present overlays of information in an operator’s visual field. It is implemented through devices such as smartphones or specialised headsets.

AR presents an opportunity to reduce the cost of personnel turnover by eliminating the need for some training. This tool can provide just-in-time work assistance without the requirement for significant (or any) prior knowledge.

Currently, investigations and research into the potential uses of AR in the electrical utility industry are underway. EPRI has collaborated with utilities Consolidated Edison and Duke Energy in the US to research the potential for wearable technologies to provide data to utility workers. For example, voltage detectors could alert workers who get too close to a dangerous line.

Other possibilities being investigated include monitoring physiological data such as using AR to show hidden assets such as underground cables.

While AR could improve efficiency and support knowledge transfer, there are concerns. The technology needs a hardware and software infrastructure which must be integrated into existing enterprise systems. Technological challenges include data from geographical information systems that are not always sufficiently accurate. Technologies that work in one application area might not work in another (e.g. voice control in a noisy area).

Despite the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time status of AR technologies, thought leaders in the utility industry believe now is the time to get ahead of the demand and determine when and how to use it. Also, by identifying AR’s requirements and potential benefits in utilities, the industry could shape how that technology is developed.

As John Simmins, technical executive in EPRI’s Information and Communications Technology Group, puts it: “Other industries have found a 15 to 20% increase in efficiency with the use of augmented reality. Can we transfer that to utilities?” He adds: “Is it going to get better? Absolutely. This technology will be as commonplace as smartphones are now. You’re going to see augmented reality everywhere.”

Creating an AR knowledge sharing toolkit

In reviewing recent industrial applications of AR, the authors, Sebok A, Mann R, Andre T, et al., of Augmented Reality Applications in Support of Electrical Utility Operations identified four critical areas in which the introduction of AR technology could significantly impact utility operations:
1. Improved efficiency
2. Improved communications
3. Knowledge capture and transfer
4. Onboarding & training

A toolkit could support collaboration by enabling remote experts to work side-by-side with field workers through a live camera feed streamed through an AR headset worked by a field operator. Via two-way voice communication, the remote expert would guide the field technician through the work by annotating the technician’s view with instructions that the expert would draw on a touch screen.

Alternatively, the field technicians could follow step-by-step instructions that appear to hover over elements in the real world, visually guiding them to do the job.

Procedures from a manual would become 3D holograms that walk a field operator through a task. Thus, the user experience would replicate having an expert available at the user’s side, regardless of location.

AR can also provide a library of resources to an end-user. Using tools for knowledge elicitation and management, designing a system that ensures information is easily accessible to personnel who need it.

Findings and challenges

Multiple interviews with electric utilities and a utility industry infrastructure provider provided an overview of US-based utilities’ views on the concept of AR.

Large private utilities are investing in serious research and development, actively exploring various use cases for AR to support operations and training. Some of these utility research efforts are supported by US federal funding, and the utilities collaborate with national laboratories.

Mid-sized utilities express interest in the potential of AR, and some are conducting investigations within their company research and development departments.

On the other hand, small utilities seem to be waiting for the large utilities to create the path forward by identifying uses and field testing AR to drop the less useful concepts selectively. While the smaller utilities do not seem opposed to the idea of adopting AR technology, they are sceptical about the practical cost-benefit.

The primary benefit of using AR technology for knowledge sharing is that it would get personnel trained – or behaving as if they are taught – more quickly than current approaches. To develop an effective AR implementation plan, though, it would be necessary to identify performance metrics to assess the benefits.

Similarly, time to complete repair operations and errors or a need for rework are other practical measures. Time to reach proficiency, assessed by competency checks, provides a way to evaluate the impact of knowledge transfer efforts.

The use of AR, though, also has potential drawbacks. One could be the over-reliance on technology and a lack of preparedness in situations where the technology fails. For example, if workers rely on AR to show them the closest exit in a fire, they may not learn the routes themselves, potentially losing valuable time in a real emergency.

A second concern is that critical information could be presented ambiguously or incorrectly aligned with equipment.

Thus, while the paper Augmented Reality Applications in Support of Electrical Utility Operations shows AR can support knowledge transfer in the utility industry, it also points out that effective implementation would require more than simply purchasing equipment. A systematic plan for developing AR assets and evaluating their impact on performance could help to ensure the technology meets its potential for bridging existing skills gaps. ESI

Augmented Reality Applications in Support of Electrical Utility Operations by authors Angelia Sebok, Rita Mann, Terence Andre, Anders Gronstedt, Kerri Chik, Ian Cooley, Dustin Shell and Heather Anderson. TiER 1 Performance Solutions, Covington, KY. Gronstedt Group, Denver, CO