Augmented reality – promise of utility value

Augmented reality is emerging as a technology with many use cases for energy sector utilities.
Published: Tue 19 Dec 2017

Augmented reality (AR) and its variants virtual reality, assisted reality and mixed reality, is one of several emerging technologies that is set to take off in a big way and offers the promise of bringing new value to the energy sector.

Technologies such as these are generally driven by applications in the consumer market, and in the case of AR the Pokémon Go game has been a significant demonstration of how humans interact with this technology.

But there are some specific use cases for the workplace in which the digital world can be aligned to the worker and the equipment around them. Training, assembly, operation and maintenance are some of these.

Similarly with the AR technologies themselves.

At the public level, glass technologies have yet to take off, mainly for privacy and safety reasons, but the most high profile of these, Google Glass, is currently being readied for launch in an enterprise edition.

On the other hand, headsets, which with their bulk and different intended usage don’t suffer from these same concerns, are being produced by an increasing number of manufacturers with applications such as gaming in mind.

According to analysts IDC, approximately 10.1m headset devices shipped in 2016 and the number is expected to grow tenfold to reach almost 100m units in 2021.

Notably, the commercial market is expected to show the greatest growth, doubling its share of the global market from approximately 20% in 2016 to 40% by 2021 and accounting for as much as 85% of the market spend.

AR in energy

With few real world implementations so far, the most forward looking work on AR in the sector appears to be that from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in the US.

In a public report, EPRI alludes to “hundreds of use cases for AR to assist employees in power and energy companies to learn and practice complex procedures in safe conditions and, once trained, to perform their work quickly and without risk of errors.”

One such example use case highlighted is succession planning, in which senior workers visually annotate their knowledge for future use by junior or new workers. Another, closely related, is skills training.

Other specific use cases cited include supply chain logistics, asset location and inspection, remote assistance, visualisation of equipment and structures with layered data, visualisation of buried and other hidden assets and situational awareness.

AR interoperability

As an emerging technology there are naturally challenges, or what the EPRI report calls “obstacles”, to the wider implementation of AR.

In particular, the report promotes the need for interoperability, stating that one source of detours and delays is the emergence and consolidation of closed, proprietary technology silos. To offset the risk these pose to delaying or controlling future investment, “interoperability of data and components are key requirements.”

To address this, the report presents an interoperability framework and identifies relevant existing standards and gaps where standards are needed.

The report also suggests that to make further progress towards AR adoption, power and energy stakeholders, and those responsible for development of AR components and systems, need to conduct deep discussions about interoperability.

A similar, coordinated effort on AR standards to that made with smart grid standards could be expected to have an even greater impact due to the fact that AR will be used in many industries in addition to power and energy, the report states.

AR in action

As part of its investigations into AR, EPRI has initiated some real world studies with phones, tablets, and wearables, with the additional benefits of the latter that the user is not needing to look down at a screen and that the user’s hands are free to perform tasks.

One early experiment focused on the use of AR to enhance repair work by enabling crews to download blueprints and manuals into a tablet while repairing substations.

As part of a utility collaborative, a proof of concept is currently under way with New York Power Authority on the use of wearables for health monitoring. The application sources data from sensors that monitor heart rate, breathing rate, O2 volumes and additional physiological readings related to movement and activity. These readings can indicate heat stress, dehydration and other conditions and situations that may prompt a break from work or other actions.

The collaborative involves several utilties across the world and covers a range of use cases with a focus primarily on the economics of AR.

Alongside this, an investigation is under way with Marquette University in Milwaukee into the ergonomics of wearable technology. The focus is on the impact of monocular and binocular headsets on the eye, head, neck and shoulders as well as the ability to perform day-to-day tasks while wearing the headsets.

“Each utility will share their results with the other utilities so that each may learn from the experience of the others,” says EPRI Technical Executive John Simmins, who is leading the project.

“The utilities will also gain knowledge of many of the vendors in the AR space and can compare technologies and ease of doing business.”

In another EPRI project, the nuclear non-destructive evaluation group is investigating the use of AR technologies to improve the 3D visualisation of flaws in nuclear plant components. Ultrasonic testing is used to scan the specimens and create 3D models from the data. The models are then fed to a Microsoft HoloLens platform to be viewed and manipulated. The functionality has been developed to enable multiple headset wearers to view and interact with the data models concurrently.

In the UK, an enhanced virtual reality system has been installed at Fife College in Scotland. The Immersive Hybrid Reality lab is aimed to enhance the training and development of offshore wind turbine technicians, allowing students to conduct detailed inspections of the top and interior of a virtual 7MW offshore wind turbine, based on the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult’s Levenmouth demonstration turbine.

The system allows users to see their own hands and feet, real tools or manuals, whilst seemingly at the top of the turbine, more than 110m above the waves. Combined with the sounds of the wind and changing weather conditions, it is said to provide one of the most realistic training environments anywhere in the world.

In France, in a novel use case Enedis is employing AR and virtual reality to promote the Nice Smart Valley project in a new showroom for the public.

With wearable technologies fast evolving and experiences in an increasing number of use cases growing, continuing utility interest in and application of AR is likely in the coming year.

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