Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) on mobile and wearable devices is starting to appear in an increasing number of applications.
The technology is currently driven by consumer opportunities such as gaming. However, the biggest growth is expected to occur in the commercial market as digitalisation takes deeper root, costs decline and emerging applications prove themselves.
For example, in a recent report, Navigant Research anticipates that more than half of utility field crews will be equipped with augmented or virtual reality devices within the next five years.
AR for smart meter installers
With utility applications few and far between, one company that has been pursuing AR is EDF Energy in the UK with a novel application for quality assurance for smart meter installers.
Will Selby, Design Engineer in EDF Energy’s R&D digital innovation team, explains the aim of the app - which is built on Google Glass - is to provide a hands-free, voice-activated mechanism with which engineers can capture images and videos of smart meter installations.
The engineers then transmit these back to a content management system for review where an office-based quality assurance specialist signs off the installation.
“As a totally hands-free system, it means the workflow isn’t interrupted as tools don’t have to be put down or a camera reached for and all the steps are prompted,” says Selby.
As such the system eliminates the need for a second quality assurance visit to the installation with the associated cost savings that brings.
One of the most positive aspects of the development, he says, is that installers have found the device “straightforward and simple to use” - essential characteristics to accelerate its uptake with workforce players. Google Glass is also lightweight, unlike for example helmets and other head wearable devices, about which extended wear health concerns have arisen.
Google Glass has been under development since 2011 and in its current form is available as an enterprise edition from any of more than a dozen ‘Glass Partners’ around the world, which also develop specialised workforce solutions and provide the technology support. None of these focus exclusively on the energy sector, however.
AR for utilities
In addition to the characteristics above, others detailed by Navigant to drive the adoption of digital reality devices are that they are safe, flexible, reliable and affordable.
Potential use cases include enhancing outage restoration, asset management, workforce management and training, and sales and marketing.
Notably, the smart meter QA app isn’t EDF Energy’s only venture into AR and another is aimed at the public to assist with the acceptability of big energy infrastructure projects. The first is focussed on offshore wind farms and provides a visualisation of how a development would appear from the user’s position on the shore. According to the company, a world patent has been granted for this project. The technology concept is currently being explored for other infrastructure projects where public acceptability is important including onshore wind, nuclear power stations and combined heat and power projects.
Moving forward with AR technology, Navigant recommends that utilities and vendors should collaborate on device design for bespoke integration into utility operations. Manufacturers also should design rugged devices to be utilised as safety and training tools that address and overcome financial, security and regulatory challenges to widespread adoption.
A further key issue identified in a 2017 report from the US Electric Power Research Institute is the need for open standard technologies. According to the report, one source of detours and delays to AR is the emergence and consolidation of closed, proprietary technology silos. To offset the risks from such silos, stakeholders must take all steps necessary to accelerate the emergence and success of open and interoperable AR.
Last but not least, it is never too early to implement groundbreaking technologies. As Navigant points out, utilities do not need to be always late to every party and companies should start to implement pilot projects and promote successful results to drive deployment.