Rugged Mobile Computing and Smart Meters: A Reliable, Efficient Combination

Governments around the world continue to move quickly towards a smart metering system for residential homes and businesses to help users measure their power consumption and send that data back to the utility for billing and analysis. According to a recent report, “The Role of Rugged PCs in Successful Rollouts of Smart Metering Systems,” by analyst firm IDC, the U.S. government expects the number of homes with smart meters to grow from the current 8 million to 40 million by 2015 and pledged to invest $3.4 billion in the federal Smart Grid Investment Grant Program.

With a massive update to an aging power grid like his, it is important that a utility have a solid infrastructure in place to support it. An essential element to this infrastructure are the field technicians responsible for the installation of smart meters and their maintenance. In order to operate efficiently, they need to be equipped with a rugged mobile computing solution that can withstand the hostile environments often experienced by utility crews, such as inclement weather, extreme temperatures and vibrating vehicle cabs. In the report, IDC finds that low mobile computer failure rates are the only way to limit the amount of downtime for those workers responsible for the installation and maintenance of smart meters.

Additionally, these technicians should have a rugged laptop with a full operating system to handle the multiple applications smart meter technicians run such as custom software for data encryption, meter exchange, cartography, GPS and database access as well as basic programs like email and web browsing. Running all these programs would prove to be too much for a device running Windows Mobile.

IDC also identified connectivity, specifically wireless broadband connection, as an integral part of a successful rugged computing solution.  A rugged computer equipped GPS capabilities and wireless broadband allows for immediate access to critical data from headquarters and vice versa. Workers in the field can access and process work orders via wireless broadband, can detect which meters are not working and can use GPS to help them navigate to the next job location.  This is especially useful in rural areas where technicians for years relied on their experience and knowledge of the local area to navigate through their service territory.

With the push for a more efficient energy grid in the United States, the number of smart meters deployed across the United States will continue to grow. IDC notes that “the choice of a wrong (mobile computing) device can lead to inefficiencies that multiply by the number of users, and that can easily scale into the thousands.” A rugged computing device with these features noted above will be a critical tool for utilities as they upgrade their infrastructure to incorporate smart meters.