Field workers in the utilities industry periodically have to do inventories of everything related to a utility pole: what is attached to the pole, how high up the attachments are on the pole, how low the wires are sagging, and how close vegetation or other hazards are to the poles and wires. This type of audit can involve communications, electricity and cable equipment. With 160 million telephone poles in the U.S., that translates into a lot of time, effort and money.

Over time, poles are stressed by wind, ice, and the weight of wires; loading assessments determine whether the pole is at risk of failing. Utilities are increasingly aware that preventive maintenance is more cost effective than making repairs after a storm has knocked out power for thousands of homes and businesses. Added pressure has come from the U.S. federal government, which has mandated maintenance programs for high voltage lines and imposed hefty fines for non-compliance. Utilities are attempting to “storm-harden” the most crucial portions of the distribution system to better withstand hurricanes and other weather-related hazards, and to comply with regulations.

Using traditional methods, including a laser finder, GPS equipment, measurement rods and a digital camera, a two-person crew is able to collect data for about 20 poles per day. Collecting information on thousands of poles can take months unless you have unlimited staff and equipment. Field work can also be dangerous due to the close proximity to traffic, and errors can be made in the transcription process back in the office.

To alleviate these problems, an all-in-one handheld unit has been developed by ikeGPS, a mobile GIS solutions provider based in Wellington, New Zealand. “ikeGPS addresses the largest hurdles that utilities face in their field work,” explained Ron Elsis, vice president product management at ikeGPS. “We have simplified the process by combining high accuracy real-time GPS, a laser range finder, a digital camera, a 3D compass, and measurement and workflow software in one tool. By implementing a remote data collection solution, productivity increases, safety of field crews improves, and 100 percent electronic data ensures accurate measurements and photo-verifiable results.”

A suite of software relates specifically to electric utility applications, such as pole audits and vegetation management, as well as applications in other industries. For example, high consequence areas (HCA) along gas pipelines often need to be monitored for vegetation encroachments or other hazards. The remote data collection capability allows crews to measure targets without needing to access private property or difficult terrain.

CN Utility Consulting, headquartered in Sebastopol, California, tested the ikeGPS technology on a right-of-way tree assessment project that required determining GPS location and measuring tree height, diameter at breast height, crown width, conductor height, span distance, and the distance from the tree to the closest utility line. The company’s analysis showed that using the ikeGPS improved field production by more than 50 percent, and the firm forecast a $100,000 savings in labor costs over three years.

Field workers at Henkels & McCoy, a major engineering and construction firm in the U.S., tested the ikeGPS solution in the City of Riverside, Calif., to conduct a joint attachment audit on 3,000 utility poles. They estimated that using traditional data collection methods would take over 30 weeks; with the ikeGPS, they finished in less than 14 weeks. The increased productivity allowed them to meet a tight deadline and schedule additional work during the extra time.

“Electric outages can be costly to individuals and businesses and damaging to the overall economy,” said Elsis. “It is in the best interest of utilities to protect the distribution system by finding faster, safer and cheaper methods to conduct accurate audits that support ongoing maintenance.”