The pursuit of aggressive decarbonization goals and the corresponding move to establish more renewable and distributed energy resources (DER), even climate change, all point to increasing demand for skilled utility industry personnel working in the field. Although demand is rising, there is a shortage of qualified candidates for this work, which puts heavier productivity demands on current field staff.
Emerging technologies like 5G, and Edge and Cloud Computing may support field workers by enabling more sophisticated mobile computing applications, helping them be more effective and efficient. But this is only possible with mobile rugged computing devices engineered to function reliably under the demands of higher performing core processors, while providing necessary accessibility, and withstanding the rigors of field conditions. This article examines the current, evolving scenario of utility field conditions and points to what to look for in rugged mobile devices to support computing requirements.
Today’s Utility Worker
The utility industry, technology, and the world are in the midst of great change. While pursuing digitization, utilities are also moving ineffably toward clean and renewable energies with distributed grid facilities. A distributed power grid requires more field personnel – utility line workers, overhead electrician specialists, damage assessors, field engineers, and installation, maintenance, and recovery crews – with updated technical skills and tools, including rugged mobile computing devices, to establish, inspect, monitor, and maintain microgrids, photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, biomass generators, fuel cells, storage batteries, and components of renewable and regenerative energy systems that haven’t yet arrived.
Meanwhile, the current, aged, centralized power infrastructure adds to demand for utility field workers because it requires frequent inspection, and is vulnerable to damage and outages from more frequent, increasingly intense storms resulting from climate change. Tenured workers knowledgeable in supporting legacy electric infrastructure are retiring in high numbers and replacement personnel must be able to support the old and the new grids. They will need to be proficient using evolving mobile technologies and applications specific to a changed grid infrastructure.
Utility companies are scrambling to recruit, train, and retain new personnel, and advanced skills are being taught to incoming candidates by organizations like the Center for Energy Workforce Development and others funded by the Future Energy Jobs Act of 2016. For these workers, their mobile computing device – tablet or laptop – is as much a part of the gear as their hardhat. Until the skilled worker gap is filled, however, existing personnel must do more with more.
Adopting Advanced Technologies
Emergent technologies – 5G, Artificial Intelligence (AI), edge computing, and others – enable increasingly sophisticated, high-performance computing applications, and help make a utility’s field staff more effective and efficient – if the rugged mobile computer can support it.
New generations of core processors running exponentially faster than earlier versions work well with the 6th generation of wireless communications. Increased speed and bandwidth enable the computing power to process large amounts of data, images, and video feeds but reliable connectivity must be built in. Connectivity and accessibility to multiple wireless communications are essential to today’s mobile workforce.
Utility industry digitization and 5G supports Internet of Things (IoT) applications with mass deployment of sensors throughout grid apparatuses, providing a nearly real-time ability to sense, collect, send, and receive data, and respond to a multitude of grid scenarios.
Going forward 5G, IoT, and edge computing will go hand-in-hand-in-hand. Increased computing power and 5G’s very low latency and speed are foundational for edge computing, which shifts more intelligence, functionality, and decision-making to the end-user device. With compute capabilities on-site wherever that may be, decisions can be made faster, and the amount of data being sent back and forth to the Cloud minimized.
Passive Cooled Rugged Devices
In utility environments, however, these increasingly sophisticated mobile devices will continue to be exposed to harsh and hazardous conditions. They are likely to be jostled in vehicles covering rough terrain, exposed to dust and fine particulates, including potentially combustible or toxic vapors. Working in the blazing sun on a hot day can make even the coolest mobile device get heated. Fanless thermal management in rugged tablets or laptops uses passive cooling and a power control algorithm, which monitors and controls the system temperature and power. This type of device cooling contributes to safer operation in potentially explosive environments, higher reliability, and less downtime and repairs that negatively impact productivity.
In the not-too-distant future, AI will prove its value as a powerful tool to process legions of data, to identify trends and anomalies that will inform and guide field personnel, their employers, and even guide the direction of the utility industry. These current and near-future factors are the influencers of rugged mobile computer engineering today. With the assurance of ever-changing conditions and evolving technologies, it will be important to stay aware and be sure equipment is always up to the work at hand.
Sasha Wang is president of Durabook Americas, the business division that specifically and exclusively serves the commercial sector of North America. She has nearly 20 years’ experience in the rugged-computer industry and previously served as Durabook’s director of global sales and marketing.