IT Needs Steel Toed Boots

06-28-2022 07:11 AM
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IT Needs Steel Toed Boots


By Tom DeWitte and Tom Coolidge

What is it like to be a field worker at a utility? Given that over 70% of a utility’s organization is either directly supporting field workers or physically spends their day in the field, this is a question to which all utility staff need to know the answer. When engineers and information technology (IT) professionals put on their hard hats and strap on their steel toed boots to head to the field what will they find?

An incompatible mix of old and new.

The New In the field they will find field workers using new advanced Bluetooth-enabled mobile sensors such as GNSS receivers, electro-magnetic locating devices, and methane gas detectors. They also will find personal phones with built-in cameras, compasses, and location capabilities.

The Old The output of those communication-enabled devices will be written down on paper. If paper is not available, it will be written on the back of the worker’s hand. The camera photos of inspections and assets will be emailed to their work email or someone in the office. The emailed data will then be manually associated to the inspection or asset it is documenting.

Field Work is Digital Work

Today’s mobile sensors, when combined with a nearby mobile device and the correct mobile GIS application on the mobile device, create a wonderful opportunity to transform tasks and workflows performed in the field. This transformation can overcome, if not eliminate, the inefficiency inherent in today’s incompatible workflows.

The communication capable mobile sensors have been or will soon be deployed at most utilities through simple replacement of hardware.  The deployment of mobile devices and mobile GIS applications to consume the mobile sensor data to complete the field work transformation to digital work is very much a work in progress. This is where many utility IT departments are struggling. This is where steel toed boots are required.

Work Happens Out of the Truck

Getting IT into their steel toed boots and out into the field is a critical step. Spending time in the field is needed to secure the foundational understanding that work happens out of the truck. Field work is not a laptop on the hood of a pickup!

Field work is a locator walking a city block to mark the next phase of a telecommunication direct bore project. Digital field work is recognizing that besides spray painting the ground to locate the buried pipe, photos and videos need to be taken, with GPS coordinates where possible, to accurately document where the locate marks were placed.

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Field work is using a methane gas detection sensor to crisscross someone’s front yard to locate a gas leak.  Digital field work is having each individual barhole methane reading automatically combined with a GNSS receiver defined location and transmitted directly to the GIS system to auto-populate the gas leak report.

Field work is wandering around an area trying to remember where a gas valve is located so you can use a paper form to document a valve inspection to assess its condition. Digital field work is using your mobile device’s built-in compass with your mobile GIS application to direct you to the valve, then complete a digital form and use the mobile device’s camera to take a photo of the valve to document its current condition. The mobile GIS application completes this task by having that photo automatically associated to the asset record and transmitted to the GIS system.

None of these field work tasks occur in or near the truck. All these tasks involve the field worker in motion to complete the task.          

It’s Stuck in the Truck

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, ruggedized laptops started to show up in utility vehicles.  For safety purposes these laptops were and still are predominantly mounted into the truck dashboard.  This is great for field tasks such as completing timesheets, receiving, and viewing work orders, driving navigation assistance, and map viewing.

Truck-mounted laptops struggle to add value to the digital work tasks which occur outside of the truck. This is especially true for workflows which use mobile sensors. Bluetooth communication is limited to a range of about 30 feet in the best of conditions. Imagine how a customer would feel if a utility worker drove their truck onto their yard so the methane gas mobile sensor can be in range to transmit its readings to the truck mounted laptop.

Mobile Devices for Mobile Tasks

The hard truth is that to achieve the promised dream of improved productivity and data quality that is supposed to come with a digital transformation, you need a mobile device such as a tablet or phone for mobile tasks. Digging deeper into what it takes to achieve the digital transformation dream is a mobile GIS application which can easily integrate with the mobile sensors.

The digital transformation premise is based on the idea that information is captured once. No repeats. Writing field collected data down on paper or the back of your hand so it can be transposed into a device in the truck will not achieve the promised productivity. Mobile tasks require nearby mobile devices running mobile GIS applications.

Mobile Apps for Capturing Mobile Sensor Data

It is the mobile GIS application running natively on the mobile tablet or phone which enables the “capture once” mission of digital transformation.

It is the mobile GIS application which combines the GNSS receiver Bluetooth data feed with the mobile device’s compass that points the way for the field worker to find the buried valve.

It is the mobile GIS application which receives the locating estimated depth, coordinate location, photos, and video, then transmits them directly to the GIS.

It is the mobile GIS application which combines methane gas detection measurements with GNSS receiver location and completes the digital leak report form, then transmits it directly to the GIS system.

It is the mobile GIS application running on the mobile device which allows the field worker to capture the location of the newly installed pipe segment using a sub-foot GNSS receiver Bluetooth data feed while walking along the trench or direct bore path.

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Since humans currently only have two arms and two hands, none of these examples is going to be accomplished with a ruggedized laptop. If one hand is supporting the laptop and the other hand is holding the mobile sensor, whose hand is doing the typing?

There is a reason why mobile tablets and mobile phones with touch screens are the platform of choice for mobile GIS applications.

IT to the Field

When engineers and IT professionals’ dust off their hard hats and pull their steel toed boots out of the back of the closet to head to the field is when the digital transformation dream will accelerate for field workers.

PLEASE NOTE: The postings on this site are our own and don’t necessarily represent Esri’s position, strategies, or opinions

About the Author
Technical Lead for Natural Gas Industry at Esri