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Digital Transformation for Utilities – Operations

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Ahsan Upal's picture
Regional Manager, Business Development Burns & McDonnell

Engineer and a senior leader with major utilities and consulting firms of increasing responsibility leading geographically diverse operations and large multidisciplinary teams to manage critical...

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This third article on digital transformation for utilities will discuss applications of digitalization in the core function at the heart of any utility. Operations involve activities such as allocating, scheduling and deployment of a variety of personnel, equipment, tools and vehicles that ensure a utility’s assets are serviced, maintained, replaced, protected and restored to provide a reliable service to its customers. Operations is responsible for operating, maintaining and testing large quantities of equipment and structures through their operating life to their eventual failure or retirement and deploying resources, tools and vehicles to administer those functions. There is a tremendous amount of data involved in overseeing these complex functions that involve scheduling, movement, tracking and maintenance of thousands of resources such as equipment, tools, vehicles, spare parts, work orders and personnel. The opportunities for better use of data are immense. This blog will discuss ideas for applying data analytics and artificial intelligence to gain wisdom about a utility’s operations to extend asset life, reduce maintenance, increase operational safety and ultimately bringing value and reliable service to the ratepayers.

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Evolving new technologies such as robust fiber and wireless networks, artificial intelligence, data analytics, remote sensors, automation and drones are creating opportunities to collect real-time high-quality data, understand it, gain strategic insights from it and then make decisions and automate responsive actions. This is especially true for repeat tasks common in operations such as in equipment testing, inspections and maintenance activities, detecting failures, dispatching resources, switching activities and tracking movement of personnel, equipment and vehicles.

Many new uses of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are being developed for aerial line and substation inspections using still/video imagery and thermal/infrared scans, vegetation management and physical condition inspections such as for a broken insulator, missing bolt, rusting tower or a rotting wood pole. Traditionally, these inspections have required helicopter observers or personnel riding a dolly or walking down the conductor, climbing towers/poles or driving along the right-of-way. All these pose high safety risk, introduce subjectivity and human error and are slow and costly. However, the UAVs flying (one day autonomously) along the conductor, around a tower or above a substation can collect data quickly and accurately, data analytics and AI can recognize defects and anomalies and categorize them automatically and effortlessly ranking them on the threat level and impact. This same data can also be used to identify encroaching plantation for vegetation management and hazard identification of any other unsafe encroachments such as farm or construction equipment. As technology matures and autonomous flying beyond the line-of-sight reduces costs utilities will be able to do inspections more frequently and have a more current health assessment of their system perhaps on yearly basis as opposed to current cycle of around every 5 years. A more accurate and fresh health assessment data will allow utilities to model their system and identify the weak spots and predict the potential failure points before an upcoming weather event and be better prepared to respond to failure events.

Similarly, data analytics applications are also being developed for UAVs to also be used for recording construction progress, inventory control to track goods as they’re received and checked-out, and perhaps one day to even make final as-built drawings from a scan of what was actually constructed.

The fast developing 3-D scanning technology makes it possible to scan an existing facility such as a substation and produce its 3D model and a site layout drawing - making verification of site conditions, access and operational maneuverability easier without the need for multiple site visits, improving safety and outage planning while saving time and money.
Virtual reality is another developing front with many use cases in operations such as to train new technicians, or to remotely provide assistance to junior technicians for doing equipment repair, do switching operations or during construction to help workers see what the fully completed system will look like. It can help speed up equipment assembly, maintenance and operations, outage switching reducing chances of error and improving safety.

A novel usage of data analytics is being implemented to identify root causes of disturbance on powerlines say due to vegetation or bird contact. Each fault has a unique digital signature that can be detected in the voltage waveform using data analytics to recognize the various patterns. This detection can help utility engineers look for creeping issues before they become a problem and result in an outage or equipment failure saving money and improving reliability.

Similarly, a utility has the ability to read the smart meter data to be able to detect issues with a home’s appliances. Each appliance has a certain “load-signature” that allows the utility to harvest the smart meter data to detect issues with a home’s appliances, whether it is energy efficient or not or whether there’s an issue developing with the appliance. Utilities have the potential to use this data to provide residential customers useful information to help them save money on their bills as well early warnings on developing issues, for example if a house furnace blower is starting to draw extra amperage because bearings are worn out or fridge compressor is overheating because piston is no being lubricated properly.

Some of these non-traditional solutions will cost more time and money in the short-term to develop them but once developed they will have their applications where they can save over a medium to long-term delivering a better value for our ratepayers. Perhaps, the leading utilities could even patent and sell their designs and services to implement these innovative solutions to other utilities for additional revenue stream.

Today, utility asset managers can have access to higher quality fresh data. For instance, with mobile devices with barcode scanners technicians can record and tag the results of equipment maintenance and test result so their values can be tracked against acceptable norms to flag any abnormalities that may warrant further inspection. If this information can be monitored and tracked for all major or critical equipment, then at any time there’s a good indication of enterprise wide assets health. With data at your fingertips it is easy to start looking for patterns such as assets nearing end of optimal useful life before reliability metrics start being impacted or risk of costly catastrophic failure start becoming unacceptable resulting in long-term operational savings.

In fact, using data analytics with intelligent algorithms analyzing various operating conditions, equipment failure scenarios and likely impacts it is possible to flag the zones of system weakness. Then applying dynamic modeling of severe weather scenarios, it could be possible to start predicting with some level of confidence potential upcoming problems that may crop-up for example on a hot summer day, heavy rain or during a high wind, ice storm or during outage conditions. Ultimately, helping utilities to better focus their resources and response strategies on the weak spots. In addition, having good asset health data equips utility executives with a dashboard to help them play various asset management scenarios, for instance to refurbish or replace, and to better focus their opex investments and get the most life and utilization from their existing assets while reducing costly system failures and customer disruptions.

Physical security of our electrical utilities that are classified as critical infrastructure is becoming an ever-growing concern for operations. Today security cameras are using data analytics to become intelligent by automatically detecting people, vehicles, unauthorized entry or attempts to scale fences and steel copper. With intrusion detection operators get alarmed if the smart security cameras detect suspicious activity saving operations from having to perform physical site inspections, saving money while improving security.

These are some examples of applications being implemented and use cases being developed in the electrical utilities today, however, there are many others that will come to light as more utilities start looking at digitalization for their operations. Data analytics and AI are powerful set of tools that utilities are only starting to scratch the surface of what is possible. Utilities have access to a modern communication infrastructure, computing, skilled labor force and technology savvy customers. These are all advantages and important determinants for successful outcomes on the journey to digitalization.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 6, 2020

The fast developing 3-D scanning technology makes it possible to scan an existing facility such as a substation and produce its 3D model and a site layout drawing - making verification of site conditions, access and operational maneuverability easier without the need for multiple site visits, improving safety and outage planning while saving time and money

This is fascinating, Ahsan-- can you comment on how quick such scans are? And how accurate they are? 

Ahsan Upal's picture
Ahsan Upal on Apr 6, 2020

Matt, it is actually quite effienct. Depending on the size of the substation the scan can be done within a few hours and processing takes another day or two.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 6, 2020

Wow, that's amazing. Thanks for the info, Ahsan. 

Chris Law's picture
Chris Law on Apr 8, 2020

Great articel thanks for sharing.  I was recently talking to a company that was investigating Video based AI for field workers so that instead of filling our paper work for them they record the works and the tool will fill in all the details and provide a system of record on file.    I thought this was a very interesting tech idea.

Ahsan Upal's picture
Ahsan Upal on Apr 9, 2020

Thanks Chris for sharing this information. Yes it's quite exciting to see all kinds of innovative applications being developed that seem so intutive once you experience them. We've been integrating similar tecnologies such as 3D modelling, AI and augmente reality into our projects at at Burns & McDonnell. Check it out -

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