Real-time Asset Inspection for the Field and the Back Office
One of the biggest challenges with asset inspection has been the inability to synchronize the operational back-office view with activities occurring in the field.
Even today, many utilities use paper-based workflows, relying solely on field workers and their supervisors to keep things up to date. This often consists of crews manually marking up maps and other forms, then transporting these hardcopy reports to the office for administrators to transpose into different systems.
These assessment and inspection workflows require plenty of time. Unfortunately, tracking progress on them doesn’t happen in real-time. Instead, there is a dangerous lag between what happens in the field and the view the back-office uses to ensure operational compliance and safety.
The synchronization of back-office records with real-time activities was explored in a recent webinar with industry experts from FortisBC, Clevest, and GeoNexus.
Data (and systems) divided
The issue is not a shortage of data. Most utilities have an over-abundance of applicable information for their territories, including systems for customer information, outage management, geospatial tracking, and enterprise asset management—all providing critical data to the operation.
In the field, inspections and patrols use a shorter list of technologies, including:
- GPS trackers: Recording the location of workers to prove compliance with visual inspection requirements.
- Digital forms vs digital maps: Disparate systems that use different formats to communicate the status of assets.
- Point Solution Applications: Used for different specialized purposes, all disconnected from the overall infrastructure.
- Paper maps: Still commonly used for tracking asset inspection progress.
The result is a collection of products and applications that don’t interact, producing siloed data that is rarely up to date and inconsistent. For field workers, this means using inaccurate information or attempting to piece the details together by accessing individual systems.
Network Assessment Framework tools
This type of data segregation was the root cause behind the digital forms (EAM) versus digital maps (GIS) paradigm. Most utilities had to choose one over the other when inspecting assets, which in turn limited the data available to workers in the field.
Fortunately, with advancements in technology – particularly the advent of Network Assessment Framework (NAF) tools – this paradigm has been broken.
NAF tools allow a utility to bring systems together at the mobile, providing a single view of data from numerous applications. This centralized interface delivers fresh data from multiple systems of record to crews and supervisors, so they can quickly execute, visualize, and track progress in real-time.
Most importantly, actions carried out in the field and within the back-office are bi-directional, propagating data across systems in real-time.
The efficiencies of NAF tools extend to any data-generating platform. With established EAM and GIS systems, data from advanced technologies, including survey planes, drones, and vehicles using LiDAR and other imaging solutions, can be easily integrated to provide more detailed information.
For example, a utility may use LiDAR taken from a survey plane for vegetation management. By layering machine learning over the data, the utility can identify power lines and determine the height of trees in proximity to the power lines, including which trees need trimming.
But even with cutting-edge technology and the richest data, a risky branch, detected leak or potential asset deficit must be attended to by a worker at some point. By accessing a centralized view of data from their mobile devices in the field, workers can respond to these issues, relying on accurate real-time data so they can be prepared and protected while carrying out their work.
FortisBC and NAF Tools
FortisBC is using NAF tools with the Clevest Mobile Workforce Management System (MWFM). The utility relies on the platform to support general inspections and leak surveys across 48,000 kilometers of natural gas transmission and distribution pipelines. Recently, the utility conducted a leak survey using the new system.
In this example, a FortisBC worker is using a digital map on their mobile device to carry out asset inspections in the field.
An asset fails the inspection, so the worker selects the asset from the map, sees related details, and notes the failed inspection in the form, with the new status reflected back instantly on the map. The information transfers seamlessly to the enterprise asset management system (digital form), triggering a series of business processes, messages, and follow-up activities to ensure the asset is restored. This rich interplay between the GIS and EAM systems pulls together fresh data and places it directly in the hands of mobile workers.
With NAF tools, actions and data are synchronized, so everything that’s happening on the mobile is also happening in the office.
With Clevest MWFM and NAF tools, FortisBC has de-segregated how workers view resources, replacing stale, siloed information with a singular view of real-time operational data.
So far, the new system has allowed the utility to combine its gas and electric infrastructures, replacing a variety of forms and toolsets with a responsive, automated model.
By centralizing data from disparate systems, utilities can carry out asset inspections efficiently, proving compliance with various requirements while providing workers in the field with the information they need to perform their jobs safely and effectively.
Combining map and form systems is just one example of the efficiencies that NAF tools and a modern mobile workforce management platform can deliver. Paradoxically, as technology continues to evolve, these complex, legacy infrastructures will become simpler, safer, and more cost-effective.