16 May 2014
It’s February 2017 and Bob, an electrical engineer, is eating his breakfast in his van whilst waiting for the first job of the day. Suddenly his glasses light up and display a message. As he reads, it is also spoken into his ear: “Strong burning smell in meter cupboard reported at 9 Acacia Avenue. 55 minutes left to meet Service Level Agreement (SLA). 20 minutes travel time in current traffic.”
He verbally confirms acceptance of the job, which his glasses understand and automatically send a message to the central service system as well as to the customer. The glasses give him verbal directions, redirecting his journey to avoid traffic and also indicate the correct house on the road. The customer only speaks Spanish and Bob doesn’t, but this isn’t a problem as his glasses translate the conversation.
Bob uses the glasses to capture pictures of the damaged meter as evidence and to conduct a video conference with his central controller who arranges contact with the landlord. He then uses the glasses to confirm he has stock available, to scan barcodes of the new and old meters, and photograph his work for quality review.
He returns to the van and verbally confirms that he’s completed the work. The glasses recognise this and confirm “Job completed in 20 minutes. Your performance this month is 98% within SLA. You are third in the performance league table”.
This is not science fiction. In the late 90s, providing fieldworkers with ruggedised laptops was standard practice. But the idea that ten years later similar power would be in a phone, was almost unthinkable. Now we see clients replacing laptops with smartphones and tablets, but this change won’t last long; in a few years we expect to see wearable technology deployed.
Over the last two years wearable health and activity monitors such as Fitbit or Nike FuelBand have entered the consumer market and become very popular. In 2012 the Pebble watch, which integrates with smartphones, was launched on Kickstarter and achieved a record 70,000 funding pledges. By July 2013 it had sold over 85,000 units. But these are just initial products. Large consumer electronics companies are now entering the market - Samsung has already launched smart watches, whilst both Google and Apple are widely expected to follow this year. More and more products like this are being created which are likely to assist an energy worker in their day-to-day work.
Wearable technology won’t stop at the wrist; a number of companies are developing and selling smart headwear which will be beneficial to those working in the energy industry. Google Glass is currently available to “explorers” in the US, and provides hands-free access to many Google services, including hangouts (video conferencing), translation and navigation. For utility field-workers this will shift the way they interact with computing. Other companies, such as Vuzix, are developing and selling smart glass products that are targeted at business users. Some of these products include augmented reality (the ability to enhance your view of the world with computer-generated information), giving energy engineers better visualisation of products and devices that they are working on.
So, from a technical perspective Bob’s life will be a possibility in 2015. While it may seem like science fiction to some, in reality it is part of the current trend in the energy and utility sectors towards digital business. Customers, whose expectations are increasingly being formed through engagement with e-commerce leaders are demanding the same type of service from their utilities.
In 1999 using laptops in the field provided greater information but also introduced data administration and IT skills into a field engineer’s job (not to mention the burden of lugging around a heavy, ruggedised device). However, the IT took time away from engineers doing what they do best. Cost savings and customer service improvements can be made right now through embracing the digital trend for field staff:
Although these benefits are available now with smartphones, wearable technology will enhance these benefits. In particular they will help engineers to go “hands free” by using voice recognition to access and update information and having visual and spoken data accessible at the point of need (for example, making schematics or instructions visible whilst working on an asset). Technology will become an integral part of delivering field-work well and not just a mere administrative activity around the job.
However, despite the potential benefits, culture and legislation may block the use of wearable technology. Will it be considered safe to use wearable solutions whilst driving or operating equipment? Will customers and businesses be comfortable with strangers wearing cameras in their premises? Will engineers want to wear a device that will constantly be able to film what they are doing and show where they are? Probably not.
Privacy controls and interfaces that do not comprise safety will be essential. In reality, the wearable solutions that succeed will not be the one that has the best technology, but can deliver it in a way that answers these cultural and regulatory questions. Whilst the technology to make engineers “hand-free” is almost here, resolving these questions will take longer.