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Now is the time for utilities to look at wearable tech

Electricians Working on a Street Light

The utilities industry is undergoing a major revolution–digital technologies and the Internet of Things (IoT) are enabling a smarter grid and a renewed focus on the customer. While wearable devices are a fairly new entry into this technology ecosystem, they offer utilities promising opportunities to make operations more efficient and to increase customer satisfaction.

Deployed in the field, wearable technologies have the potential to improve efficiency, reliability and safety. Augmented video reminders and checklists could provide fields crews with step-by-step instructions to resources, equipment repair history, and even equipment operating statistics. Furthermore, crews’ work could be recorded and documented for review and training purposes. Wearable technologies incorporating thermal imaging sensors could enable crews to determine what equipment repairs are needed on site, and relay pictures and other data captured back to a processing location for analysis. Wearables could even communicate with other innovative technologies, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Virtual reality training and the availability of non-intrusive checklist/reminder functionality could also help field technicians to deal with challenging situations safely. In a storm scenario, field workers would be able to provide operators with precise outage location, type and restoration information via GPS services, location-sensitive network information, and video/audio streaming.

As wearable technologies come to be more widely adopted across industry, utility companies will have the opportunity to provide value-add services for commercial and industrial customers. For example, an industrial customer plant manager would be able to elect to receive messages directly to his wearable device from the plant’s electricity supplier on future pricing, generation options, demand patterns and weather. Offerings like this may prove to be differentiators for energy providers in the lucrative commercial and industrial segment.

For domestic customers, wearable tech could be incorporated into the connected home, interacting with smart appliances to provide usage and pricing data to customers. Actually, this sort of technology already exists. Glass Nest is an unofficial Google Glass app that allows users to control their Nest thermostat using a simple set of voice commands. Utilities could blend this enabling technology and software with dynamic pricing and gamification to drive customer engagement in energy efficiency programs.

A host of new wearable products capable of supporting these uses has recently entered the marketplace. Perhaps the most high profile is Google’s Glass, a wearable computer with an optical head-mounted display (OHMD) and a touchpad, camera, and LED display that can connect to other devices and recognize voice commands. Through Google’s Glass at Work program, businesses that want to explore Glass’s potential can link up with developers that are creating apps for businesses.

However, so far, there are very limited examples of utilities rolling out wearable devices. One of the rare cases is a small solar installer in Southern California. Service technicians at Sullivan Solar have been using Google Glass to install and maintain solar panels in San Diego Gas & Electric’s service territory. Sullivan has built and deployed a proprietary app that uses Glass’s camera and microphone to record jobs as they are being completed, allowing back office and other employees to view the work as it is being done.

One of the current drawbacks of Glass is the lack of a safety glass version. XOEye Technologies and Vuzix are two companies that aim to fill the void by developing a version specifically for industry. XOEye Technology’s XOnes are designed to operate in work environments like factory floors and take account of factors such as noise levels and glove usage. Vuzix has been around for nearly two decades and has recently partnered with Chinese technology giant Lenovo to launch the M-100–a model with various industry applications. Epson’s Movario BT-110 is a larger wearable apparatus that has augmented reality capabilities, with the headset tied to a controller. But perhaps the most feature-rich and technologically advanced product, coming to market next year, is Meta Pro Spacegoggles. Meta Pro’s offering is the first device to have a holographic interface that enables users to design and manufacture concepts via augmented reality and 3D printing.

Although wearable technology programs are still very much in the discovery phase, it would be a missed opportunity for utilities to omit wearables from their mobility and innovation roadmaps. The deployment of wearable technologies should be part of utilities’ overall enterprise mobility and innovation strategy, spanning the opportunities across generation, T&D, and retail business units, and taking account of the impact on the customer, field force, enterprise, and regulators. As technologies mature and the business case for wearables becomes more compelling, utilities will need to carefully weigh the balance between ease of implementation and business value in order to decide which applications represent the best investment.

As utilities continue to invest and evolve to become digital organizations, wearables represent a key opportunity to enable this transformation. A number of utilities have been working with regulators to fund future technology pilots. Wearables should be on the radar for these programs as utilities seek to improve reliability and create a customer experience consistent with other sectors.


Alex Pischalnikov and Craig Rintoul are energy experts at PA Consulting Group.

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