Magazine Article | November 20, 2006

Combine GIS, Tablet PCs To Improve Utility Efficiency

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

New Brunswick Power’s field assessments take 1/3 the time with rugged tablets.

Integrated Solutions, December 2006

In the utilities industries, the success of projects relies on precise planning and measurement. Whether water, power, or telco (telecommunications), knowing precisely where existing lines, vegetation, and structural elements are is vital to planning a successful utility installation, upgrade, or repair. In addition to precision, utility engineers and technicians are often under a tight deadline to perform an installation — a delicate balance that technology can help maintain.

New Brunswick (NB) Power provides electricity to more than 360,000 customers in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. Its Distribution and Customer organization (one of five operating units within the parent company) is responsible for the delivery of service and electricity to new and existing customers. To do so, it maintains a staff of 600 employees that includes power line designers, project engineers, and vegetation management supervisors. The electric company’s employees work out of 10 operating centers located throughout the province

When a customer calls into NB Power, it’s either to activate existing power lines or to deliver power to a new building site. It is the latter call that requires precision and timeliness. When a new service call comes in, a field engineer/power line designer is dispatched based on the operating center region in which the customer is located, as well as the team’s schedule. For this type of call, NB Power has 14 days to deliver full service — including the designing, planning, and construction of power lines. “Typically, it took three days to plan a new service, which involves determining what construction is needed to provide the electrical service,” says Robin Rickard, project manager of the line design project for NB Power. “The designers determine the material, the type of construction crew(s), and even the type of vehicles needed to provide service to the customer.”


Until recently, when power line design teams were dispatched, they used paper forms to capture their land assessment, comparing the plans against maps of water, gas, and other existing lines, as well as considering the natural geography (e.g. water, hills, trees). “The three-day planning culminates in the creation of a job package, which goes to our construction crews,” says Rickard. “The package includes line design drawings, customer information, material lists, job details, diagrams, estimates, etc. All of it was handwritten or hard copied, which was extensive work. We were spending as much time sitting at our desks creating job packages as we were spending with our customers.” NB Power wanted to change this process and looked to electronic data entry to do so.

The electric company began researching tablet PCs, wanting pen-based input to replicate the pen-and-paper input the field workers were used to, as well as the portability tablets offer. NB Power also required a rugged device that would withstand the seasonal weather experienced in Canada, as well as the vibrations and bumps associated with fieldwork. After testing five different models in the field, the electric company landed on the Xplore iX104C2 tablets. NB Power also implemented Powel StakeOut Editor, a utility-specific application that automates the work order process, synchronizing field map viewing, data collection, and design with construction documents, scheduling, materials handling, and customer information.

When customers call in, work orders are created in the StakeOut program and viewable in the regional offices via the StakeOut Info Center. The field workers come into their field offices every morning and upload their jobs for the day via the LAN. In the field, the engineers and power line designers can see all of the information for the job that would be contained in the StakeOut program in the office. On the tablet PCs, the utility application is built on a GIS (geographic information system) background, created by uploading maps from within the company, from other utility companies, and from New Brunswick’s provincial land registry group. The field designers input the job planning information right on top of the GIS background and can immediately accommodate for physical and geographic elements. The application running on the tablet also includes all of the customer and property information, information on standard construction packages, and other necessary tools. “The designer can create a job package on-site, planning the construction, running estimates, etc.,” says Rickard. “He just comes back to the office to upload the details specific to the job. This information is then transferred electronically to the planning group for assignment to construction personnel. This functionality has drastically reduced the time spent planning, from three days to less than a day. We’ve also reduced the number of trips designers make to the customer site during the planning process.”