The Growing Potential of Augmented Reality in Energy and Utilities
Augmented reality (AR) is set to open up a new world for utilities, boost operational efficiency, improve customer service, shorten repair times, reduce training expenses, and lower accident risks.
Unlike virtual reality, which plunges users into a fully simulated world and typically requires a dedicated device, augmented reality combines the best of both. It does this by adding audio-visual elements via mobile devices and specifically created AR software applications.
Interest in augmented reality in energy and utilities
In the utility industry, as in other industries, interest in augmented reality is continuing to grow. One report from VR Intelligence found that enterprise augmented and virtual reality solutions are overtaking consumer solutions. The report noted that 65% of augmented reality companies are working on industrial applications. Another 37% are working on consumer applications and products.
Interest in AR has also grown in tandem with the evolution of the technology. For example, holographic imagery is on the horizon. It works by simulating the effect of light reflected off an object. The resulting hologram mimics a real-world scene, making 2D projections appear as 3D. In the enterprise world, a hypothetical oil company could use this imagery to inspect underground valves, cables, and pipes, improving environmental assessments.
There has also been plenty of progress on the hardware front. Rugged mobile tablets or handheld devices, for example, are now available with powerful processors, excellent displays, 3D rear cameras, barcodes readers, and NFC. They can also often include sensors and ultra-wideband technology, that operates through radio waves at very high frequencies, which increases the number of frequencies in a spectrum.
These features help enable augmented reality applications and allow the capture of highly accurate (and necessary) spatial and directional data.
The past year also has shown many the potential and value of AR for business needs. ABI Research’s report found that the pandemic has forced businesses to do whatever they can to keep moving forward, including adopting new technologies like AR to support remote staff. These programs will “prove ROI under stress, which informs and encourages future investment, serving as a kickstart for the market that had been occurring slowly but surely over time,” it noted.
Solving real-world problems more efficiently
The most common example of augmented reality in energy and utilities is also one of the most beneficial. By combining AR with a geographical information system (GIS), utilities can more quickly find specific locations for digging, monitoring assets, and better navigating difficult terrain. If utility workers can digitally visualize the area and overlay software to understand an underground supply infrastructure along with nearby obstacles, they can fix problems quickly and safely.
Over the past few years, utilities have begun using augmented reality in selected areas, and its use is forecasted to increase. One recent survey found that 81% of utilities expect the importance of augmented reality for the mobile workforce to increase even more over the next three to five years.
Here are just a few examples:
Faster and safer maintenance and repair
By imposing a 3D model of a part on top of a piece of equipment, field technicians can quickly find information like asset type, part number, maintenance history, and the operations manual. With this information, the lineman can assess the condition, immediately order a replacement part or consult with another off-site technician to fix the problem immediately.
More effective training
AR allows for real-time, simulated training in many aspects of utility maintenance, repair, and customer service. For example, a trainee could be presented with specific scenarios to teach safety procedures or manage extreme situations.
Fosters teamwork to get results
Sometimes, utility workers at the site encounter something they have never seen before or don’t know how to fix. Using a mobile device, the on-site technician can video call- in a remote specialist who can see what the on-site technician can see, and the remote specialist can assist as well as have the technician access the right AR instructions. Working together, the job gets done faster and accurately.
Better customer service
By combining AR and artificial intelligence, a utility worker can communicate with customers using smartphones to troubleshoot issues within the house. With the right software, these solutions can even collect dimensions, serial, and model numbers without the technician entering the premises.
Mobile devices and augmented reality
Taking advantage of all AR has to offer requires three things: feature-rich mobile devices, software, and a modern, digitized networking infrastructure.
According to a survey from Zpryme, utilities today rely on laptops, with tablets and smartphones close behind. As technology continues to develop, wearables such as smart glasses or head-mounted units will become common.
The right device can make the difference. A purpose-built device for rugged, industrial use is a good place to start. Beyond that, make sure the device has the right specifications. The more powerful the capability, the better the fit. High visibility displays, strong graphics, good image processing, fast CPU performance, excellent battery life, plenty of storage and memory, and highly reliable connectivity are ideal.
Choosing the right mobile device for AR
The Panasonic rugged TOUGHBOOK line is a good example. Take the TOUGHBOOK 55, a semi-rugged laptop built with the Intel 8th Gen quad-core vPro processor, infrared webcam with four microphones, powerful speakers, up to 40 hours of battery life, and the ability to upgrade memory, storage, and graphics.
For smaller spaces and more unpredictable conditions, consider a well-outfitted tablet or handheld device. The Panasonic rugged TOUGHBOOK A3 Android tablet has an outdoor-viewable display with rain and glove touch that, for example, lets workers operate the unit with gloves or a digitized pen.
Ensuring that processes work well on the back end means having a modern, digitized infrastructure that can handle data from modern technologies—not only AR but also IoT-connected devices and sensors, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Other improvements include moving from server-based to cloud-based platforms for better accessibility and more advanced security tools.
Yet, many utilities have not fully modernized their infrastructure. According to the Zpryme survey, only half of utility industry participants say they feel prepared for their mobile workforce infrastructure to support an AR environment.
Augmented reality in energy and utilities depends on the right applications
The third piece of the puzzle is applications. Application developers today can take advantage of Augmented Reality Markup Language (ARML), as well as a growing number of software development kits (SDK) that provide ideal environments for AR development.
There also are more off-the-shelf AR-focused applications for the utility industry every day. For example, one company has developed an application that superimposes transmission and distribution line designs against the actual environment. This allows utility workers to visualize and validate designs before construction or maintenance.
Another company has an application that allows line workers to see tree canopy and brush while overlaying visual cues to understand when and where to trim and identify risks like potential tree falls. There is even a solution that provides both a location-based look into underground conduits and environments and a table-top view of those same placements. In addition to making geology and groundwater visible, the application also can help with situational awareness of inaccessible areas.
With the right tools, infrastructure, and applications, utilities can take advantage of the vast potential of augmented reality in energy and utilities.