As utilities confront the loss of experienced technicians, trades and engineers — due to the ongoing wave of retirements — technology is increasingly stepping in with solutions that bridge these widening knowledge gaps.

One of those technologies, Onsight remote collaborative software developed by Librestream, is now being offered through a partnership with Burns & McDonnell to utilities and other industrial users. As a device-agnostic platform, Onsight elevates other assisted-reality solutions offered by Burns & McDonnell through RealWear’s family of hardhat-mounted tablets. Librestream has offered a range of assisted-reality technology solutions for almost 20 years.

The Onsight platform works on a wide range of digital devices, from hardhat-mounted tablets to portable tablets and cellphones. Because it can function in low-bandwidth zones down to 50 kilobits per second, it gives utility crews and other field personnel the ability to maintain connectivity in even the most remote locations.

The partnership is a next step in a wide-ranging effort by Burns & McDonnell that began in 2017 to develop and deploy connected workforce initiatives that leverage the ability of remote team members to collect data, inspect equipment and devices, enable tests, and perform many other functions.

Primary Benefit for Utilities

This technology can address one of the primary concerns utilities face today — reducing operations and maintenance (O&M) costs.

Because Onsight eliminates a number of time-intensive tasks normally required before and after routine service calls, productivity gains of 70% can be expected.

The collaborative technology eliminates the need for crews and field staff to review work plans and related documents before traveling to the job site, simply because the workflow-relevant documents are activated digitally on their devices when they arrive on-site. Field work that proceeds routinely will require the same amount of time, but additional time savings can be expected if unexpected issues arise. In those cases, crews can activate video call functionality to gain access to subject matter experts, video tutorials or additional reference materials. This avoids delays from stopping work, returning to a central location for the resources needed to solve the issue, and then returning to the work site.

Additional time savings are realized when the job is concluded. Instead of returning to an operations center to consolidate task notes and fill out quality control or other forms, that data is generated automatically by the Onsight software and uploaded to digital work records that are then archived for easy retrieval.

Remote Support for Field Crews

Because many seasoned, highly competent linemen and technicians are retiring, the knowledge networks utilities have traditionally cultivated are now at risk. This challenge is addressed by creating a digital knowledge network, thanks to seamless interconnections that allow field crews to gain guidance on complex tasks from experienced subject matter experts who are always accessible to field crews, technicians and engineers.

Once a field crew arrives at a work location, they can immediately tap into digital workflow processes that guide them through step-by-step instructions on every aspect of the task at hand. If more information is needed, a crew member can call up instructional videos or place a video call to the appropriate subject matter expert for a live diagnostic session. As the work proceeds, everything is automatically documented and fed back to a centralized database for a dynamic record of all work performed on field equipment and facilities.

Top Use Cases for Utilities

Utilities throughout North America are facing more extreme weather events. These are raising urgency to both quickly make repairs to restore service and to harden power infrastructure to be more resilient in the face of high winds, ice storms, flooding and wildfires. The video calling and remote collaborative functionality delivers an excellent solution for utilities addressing these use cases.

With live connectivity, crews can quickly and accurately make repairs or install equipment with the guidance of a remote knowledge network that is always available. Work processes are also always available with step-by-step guidance.

Platforms like Onsight that are built with artificial intelligence (AI) can assist work crews even when subject matter experts are not available. Crews can take photos of damaged equipment, downed lines and transformers and walk through a series of questions that enable them to pull the correct workflows, diagrams and reference manuals. As a crew member takes photos of breaker cabinets or transformers, for example, the AI can begin walking through the available resources the crew will need. Over time, as it builds on experience, the AI will become smart enough to begin automatically linking relevant information to any field assignment.

The result will be quicker and more accurate repairs and upgrades, effectively creating a network of knowledge in a digital arena that can be passed along to multiple crews. This should particularly benefit crews working around the clock to restore service after a major storm.

Integrating the Technology

The process of integrating advanced technology into long-standing work processes and procedures will involve a learning curve for utility line crews, technicians, engineers and managers.

It will require a change management program to implement new work processes step by step. With many technology providers offering a variety of solutions, an experienced consultant like Burns & McDonnell can help utilities understand where obstacles may be and help them troubleshoot any early difficulties.

The goal is to help utility staffers execute the programs themselves and begin gaining the efficiencies and other savings that can be achieved while improving work quality and safety.

 

Create the workforce of the future by strategically leveraging construction tech on your critical infrastructure projects. 

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Zachary Wassenberg is a product manager for design technology at Burns & McDonnell. He specializes in developing innovative technology products and solutions for electric and gas utilities and was recognized by Public Utilities Fortnightly magazine as a Top Innovator in 2020.