With budgets being a chief concern during an organisation’s digital transformation, a location strategy is needed to improve efficiency and save cost. Optimising field operations should be a part of any organisation’s strategy because it’s one of the easiest ways to streamline mobile workflows. Location intelligence is central to field operations management because it keeps information flowing between field and office in real-time. A location-enabled workforce quickly responds to scheduling and priority changes, while automated workflows made possible by GIS save workers from mundane tasks, enabling them to focus more on field work.
Central Electric Power Cooperative (CEPC) is an electric transmission services utility that has provided power to central Missouri in the US for 70 years. Over that time, it has accumulated volumes of paper maps and asset data forms to document its electrical system. Today, CEPC’s service area comprises 57,000 square kilometres with 2,500km of line. Eight separate power distribution cooperatives collectively own CEPC.
For this operation to run smoothly, all its poles, rights-of-way and equipment must be maintained, serviced and inspected every year. However, due to outdated and sometimes inaccurate maps, office staff and linemen in the field were often forced to work with different information from one another. While some of CEPC’s asset data was recorded electronically, all its maps were on paper.
To service all its assets, linemen had to rely on these paper records or access information from a computer back at the office before heading out into the field; and, since paper records were not always returned to the office, these records were sometimes inaccurate. The paper maps tended to become outdated quickly. As older workers retired, it was difficult to completely capture their knowledge of the electrical system so it could be conveyed to new staff.
To streamline processes and make information more accessible, timely and accurate, CEPC chose to implement ArcGIS field mobility apps. These apps, including Collector for ArcGIS and Survey123 for ArcGIS, enabled field crews to streamline their workflows using easy-to-use portable tablet devices.
The CEPC team tested Collector for ArcGIS, Survey123 for ArcGIS, and Navigator for ArcGIS. They soon realised that these apps could serve as a unified system, allowing everyone to work from the same data, whether they were in the field or in the office. ArcGIS apps also appealed to CEPC decision-makers because of how well they worked together in connected as well as disconnected environments, since the utility’s electrical system covers mostly rural areas with sparse internet connectivity.
CEPC’s goal was to achieve thorough, accurate asset data collection for service, maintenance and inspection. The utility also wanted the ability to navigate the many assets that span its service area. Altogether, these field apps enabled greater efficiency, providing precise asset record keeping while helping linemen easily get to and from their assignments.
A more accurate map
To build a practical solution for fieldwork, the CEPC team first needed to create an accurate basemap of its service area that could be used while offline. This was a challenge due to the large size of the high-resolution satellite imagery data that had to be fed into mobile devices.
Using ArcGIS Pro, CEPC therefore built an optimised map package that could be side loaded onto a mobile device for use offline, anywhere across the utility’s service area. The utility then used Collector to record the existing paper and electronic data for all their assets and make it available as a feature layer to display on the map. Then, using Survey123, they built a smart form to record asset inspections. Finally, with Navigator, field employees would be able to navigate from asset to asset across CEPC’s road network. Having the location of each asset on a map would make it easy for linemen and right-of-way coordinators to get driving directions to assets across the entire network. The utility was now ready to begin testing what they hoped would be a seamless suite of apps. The goal was to have the apps in place for the linemen’s annual winter inspections project.
Implementing the solution
Following a three-month testing period, CEPC was convinced that moving forward with the ArcGIS apps was the right solution. Many employees in the IT department were familiar with Apple products and CEPC was pleased with how they performed in the field, so it chose to use iPads for field data collection. Many linemen had little computer experience, with some having only used one to fill out their timesheets each day. A number of them had mobile phones, but for others, this was their first experience with a smart device.
Given the vastly varying degrees of comfort staff had with mobile technology, CEPC created a detailed, paper-based manual that documented how to use the apps with step-by-step notes and pictures. The IT and line design departments also conducted a training session for the entire field workforce, demonstrating various scenarios while linemen followed along on their iPads.
The linemen reported that using the ArcGIS field apps on the iPads helped them get their jobs done better and more efficiently. Side-loaded satellite imagery basemaps on mobile devices covering the entire service area enabled field crews to retrieve the information on-demand – whether they had Internet access or not – and see the details for any asset they needed to investigate, including its service records. For the first time, staff had all the information for each asset at their fingertips. In addition, they could easily jump between Collector, Survey123 and Navigator to navigate to any asset in the system. Linemen in the field now had everything they needed to complete their daily work assignments without calling the office or referring back to paper maps.
Field apps take action
Using Collector and Survey123 has made CEPC’s data more complete, consistent, and conformant with regulatory requirements. Collector contains all the existing paper-based and electronic data for CEPC assets. And for the previous year’s annual winter inspection of poles and lines in the system, crews used Survey123 to create fully documented inspections of each structure. A glance at the interactive map shows a clear set of red dots that indicate hot spots where problems exist, making it easy to see where to focus needed repairs. Streamlining the inspection process also allowed more people to perform queries to see where attention was most needed and to ascertain the full scope of what was needed in a specific area. This helped to greatly focus and prioritise critical issues.
Additionally, CEPC reported that using Navigator dramatically improved how its field crews got around its expansive electric system. This was especially beneficial to the staff who visit some areas of the system relatively infrequently. And having different ‘car’ or ‘truck’ modes within Navigator enables employees and contractors who drive various vehicles to jobsites to receive specialised driving directions for their vehicles. Navigator is also ideal for newer employees, since it enables them to efficiently access assets without needing to have years of experience navigating the service area. Navigator simply guides them efficiently and safely to where they need to go.
Location intelligence connects departments
For CEPC, using ArcGIS field apps has dramatically opened up communication among departments. Seeing every asset and its related information enables crew members to plan what they need to bring into the field each day to do their jobs correctly. This helps them avoid unnecessary trips back to the office to retrieve additional equipment. The apps have also made it easier to train new hires, since all the information about the system is available digitally, making it unnecessary for them to memorise elements of the electrical system from the start. Linemen also report that communication with landowners for right-of-way issues is enhanced by having an accurate map to lead the discussion and show proposed changes. From the office or the field, CEPC staff members now have a common view of the utility’s network. And that has made all the difference for streamlining operations and increasing the efficiency of field activities. And crews need only rely on their iPads as a single source of truth for an accurate picture of the electric system while they’re in the field.
Barbara Leigh Shields is a writer at Esri (esri.com)