For decades, map books have been the industry standard for “in the field” utility company operations and, in many cases, map books still are the order of the day. But for utility companies that continue to use map books, there is growing awareness of information lapses, and even disconnects between field crews and headquarters. There is a lot of time lost as field crew leaders get up to speed about where they are expected to dig, including locating foreign crossings and right of ways before they disperse their locators to mark the site.

“This is an area where mobile technology that now makes viewing GIS data in the field very practical can deliver enormous benefits,” says Brady Hustad, CEO of Argis Solutions, which delivers its augmented reality Argis Framework for geospatial information that is used by utilities and other industries. “These mobile-enabled geospatial tools enable anyone to view geospatial data securely on site, instead of relying on their own individual experience to interpret maps.”

Hustad says that many utility companies were making the shift to geospatial technology because it made them more operationally efficient and accurate. “What makes companies more accurate is the shift from paper to devices. … When utilities switch to mobile technology to view their geospatial data, the technology brings people and data together in the real world and facilitates collaboration.”

To illustrate, Tata Power Delhi Distribution in India has improved its operational efficiency by overlaying its GIS mapping with all of its system assets. This helps both central planners and technicians in the field. “All our assets, including the distribution and transmission networks, are on GIS,” says Arup Ghosh, senior advisor, Tata Power DDL. “Further, the GIS is integrated with our ERP and SCADA, which means that the entire asset management cycle, from planning for and implementing the assets at site to maintaining and finally retiring the assets, is supported by our GIS.”

Argis’ Hustad confirms that utility companies that are making the switch to geospatial data on mobile devices such as tablets or smartphones are finding great benefit because of the ability to streamline business processes where the central office and technicians in the field using mobile devices can com-municate and collaborate, with universal access to geospatial data.

“Because GIS managers in the office and crew leaders on the ground can now access the same infor-mation, they can work together on tasks such as locating hidden assets, correctly identifying foreign crossings and confirming encroachments in right of way situations,” Hustad says.

Where will geospatial technology use in the utilities industry go over the next two to three years?

“The world of augmented reality (AR) is about to take the U.S. by a storm,” Hustad says. “We predict that consumers will be using AR and virtual reality (VR) in just a few short years. Utility companies that pivot and embrace this development will also see exponential growth as they are able to adapt their field crews to be more efficient, safer and expedient at accomplishing projects. This is the time to adopt so they are ahead of the curve.”

In one case, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) is teaming up with New York utility Con Edison to explore wearable technology. EPRI and Con Ed hope to use AR devices to help employees in the field with tasks such as locating buried transmission infrastructure in disrepair and then applying the appropriate fixes. Doubtless other utilities will perform similar trials of emerging AR and VR technologies that add value to geospatial information in the field.

In the meantime, what can utilities do now to optimize the use of their geospatial technology?

“Utility companies should aim to have updated geospatial information for what they value most: their assets,” Hustad says. “For a company just starting from the paper map stage, we highly suggest purchasing Esri’s ArcGIS online, and then taking a team to QA the utility’s current information.”

The next stage is to organize a small pilot project to prove out a business value case that has been identified for the technology investment to see if you are getting the added value from the technology that you thought you would. If this checks out, you are in a position to move forward into a major technology investment.