Energy and Utility Field Service Technicians Embrace Augmented Reality

Augmented reality (AR) is set to open up a new world for field service technicians in energy and utilities. 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.

With the power of AR, utility companies can embrace the following benefits:

  • Boost operational efficiency.
  • Improve customer service.
  • Shorten repair times
  • Reduce training expenses
  • Lower accident risks 

Over the past few years, utilities have already 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.

Growing Interest in Augmented Reality For Utility Maintenance

In the utility industry, 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.

The hardware front has also seen plenty of progress. 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,” the report noted.

Helping Field Service Technicians Solve Real-World Problems

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 field service technicians 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.

Here are just a few examples of how AR will become even more important in coming years:

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 field service technician in training could be presented with specific scenarios to teach safety procedures or manage extreme situations.

Fosters teamwork to get results

Sometimes, field service technicians 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 start a video call with 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 numbers, and model numbers without the field service 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, field service technicians 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 in field services.

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. Look for the following qualifications to ensure the best results:

  • High visibility displays
  • Strong graphics
  • Good image processing
  • Fast CPU performance
  • Excellent battery life
  • Plenty of storage and memory
  • Highly reliable connectivity

Remember: the more powerful the capability, the better the fit.

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 Field Services 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 field service technicians 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, field service technicians can take advantage of the vast potential of augmented reality in utility maintenance.