Utilities & Augmented Reality: Challenges, Opportunities and Standards

Rudi Schubert, Director, New Initiatives for the IEEE Standards Association (IEEE SA)


Interest in Augmented Reality (AR) solutions continues to grow across many industry segments. The IEEE Standards Association (IEEE SA) recently co-sponsored the Augmented Reality in Leading Utilities (ARLU) workshop hosted by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) at their Charlotte, NC facilities on 27-28 July 2015. ARLU was organized in collaboration between EPRI, IEEE SA, and AREA (Augmented Reality Enterprise Alliance). With a focus on the electric power utility industry, the workshop drew a range of participants representing a number of utilities, EPRI researchers across several technology domains, government, and vendors of AR solutions.

Utilities view AR solutions as having potential to provide value as a complementary tool for enhancing the functions involved in electricity delivery. While compelling use cases for the utility environment are in their early stages, two key applications resonate with both utility participants and researchers:

  • Enhancing field worker performance through AR tools
  • Enhancing storm restoration capabilities to address and minimize storm related power outages

Worker performance opportunities build on applications being advocated for manufacturing floor environments and take those out into the field where the electric distribution infrastructure is found. Broad field visualization of underground and aerial plants can accelerate installation and repair times. Instructional aids using AR can support more rapid troubleshooting and, in some cases, provide remote access to distributed experts for consultation as needed. These capabilities can be even more powerful in storm restoration scenarios where rapid response is expected. Storm response can also be aided with solutions that look at triage to identify specific critical failure locations and quickly inventory the required asset needed for repair. Syncing this information through the supply chain can accelerate routing of required hardware for repair to the right location, thus reducing the time to restoration. A number of utilities are involved with in-house projects looking at warehouse case studies, which provide real time information for asset inventory and tracking to support as-needed hardware to address field issues and other needs. AR is increasingly being considered by utilities for use in operations, maintenance optimization, predictive maintenance, and as a means to connect field personnel to centralized experts for support.

IEEE SA put the event participants to work with an interactive mini-workshop where attendees were split into two breakout groups to address cross cutting issues, priorities, and standards. One breakout group focused on augmented reality devices (e.g., smart glasses) by identifying utility expectations and concerns for adoption such as user acceptance, usage environment constraints, safety considerations, and other topics as identified by the group. The second breakout group focused on augmented reality applications and support infrastructure.

Both groups were presented with the same set of three questions. They were asked to discuss each question, build a list of responses, and reach consensus on the priority issues for each question. The three questions were:

  • What are the drivers in a utility to introduce AR solutions?
  • What are the obstacles and challenges to overcome in introducing AR solutions for utilities?
  • What technology standards (or related work) are needed to drive AR adoption in the utility environment?

The focus issues and priorities for utilities were highly informative. Safety issues were the dominant theme, consistent with the high priority on safety emphasized by utilities. It was discussed that AR solutions will need to be demonstrated as enhancing worker safety and not be perceived as introducing distractions that can lead to unsafe situations. Hardware communications and security were also key issues influencing utility purchasing decisions. A need for compatibility with existing infrastructure and an ability to use existing digital asset information will be drivers in assuring that AR solutions provide an acceptable return on investment. Barriers to adoption were also discussed with respect to the unique utility regulatory requirements, as well as acceptance from organized labor. These considerations, more specific to the utility environment, are not found in many other industries considering AR solutions and are often not at the forefront of consideration by AR hardware and application developers.

Relative to standards, a high priority issue was standards for safety (as expected). It’s an open question on how well existing safety standards for similar electronics are applicable or whether new and modified standards will be needed to meet industry expectations. Wireless communications standards were also high on the list. Will existing standards apply directly, enabling utilities to maintain consistency with existing infrastructure? Will AR solutions coexist in a utility communications environment? Will interference issues need to be addressed? These issues will all need to be addressed in driving adoption.

Other important standardization considerations include device physical connection standards and power management. Hardware ruggedness for sometimes harsh field conditions must also be considered. A general need to move towards plug and play interoperability has also been cited to assure seamless integration of AR solutions into the utility environment. Beyond the traditional realm of standards, there is also a critical need to address internal utility process standards (e.g., work instructions, work flows) and compatibility with the Common Information Model (CIM) used in the utility industry.

Augmented reality solutions clearly have potential benefits for application in the utility environment. However, many issues remain to be addressed to build the business case, as well as to gain the acceptance and adoption by the utility community. Compelling use cases, standards, education, and the unique utility regulatory environment will all need to be pursued to implement AR solutions into the utility industry.

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