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Working Remotely With Digital Technologies

June 18, 2020
The virtual workplace has taken on a different role in today's new normality.

The COVID-19 pandemic requires social isolation, staying away for any type of congregational gatherings, while being able to work efficiently, and the evolution of digital technology is making that possible. We are online more than ever before as we work remotely, taking advantage of digital technology’s connectiveness. It is a huge benefit when it comes to keeping the lights on, but working remotely has challenges that are being defined by businesses and users almost on the fly.

Millions of people are putting enormous pressure on the internet and residential distribution system. Experts estimate that internet traffic is up about 35% and there is an increase of roughly 20% in residential power load. Thanks to a huge effort from the companies proving these services, the offsite workplace is not only possible but thriving. Thinking about all of these digital technologies can be mind-boggling, but the technological evolution that has quietly taken place is more so.

Does anyone remember when working remotely was called telecommuting? It hasn’t been that long ago. Raise your hand if you remember the dial-up modem. One memory that stands out from that period was how primitive those early applications were. Just getting connected through the company portal required determination. It wasn’t unusual to input all the correct names, passwords, etc. only to have the connection fail as data started to flow. Then the whole process had to start over again You might say it was a long way from being user-friendly.

Virtual Environment

And it wasn’t that people were demanding complex interactions; most users only wanted to access their email, but the technology of the day was extremely limited. The biggest gripe most people had was how slow everything was, but every technology starts somewhere. Despite all of those frustrations, users felt the overall technology had more advantages than disadvantages. As a result, a great deal of research and development effort was poured into the technology.

Somewhere along the way this early digital technology morphed from telecommuting to today’s virtual reality (VR) with its cloud computing, video conferencing, business apps, asset managing programs, project management systems, CADD programs, engineering software, and many others. These VR schemes have made the process easier, more efficient, and cost-effective, to the point that small and medium sized business have joined the ranks of the larger corporations when it comes to working remotely.

As a result, it is not unusual for business to allow employees to work offsite several days a week, but that took on a different importance with the outbreak of COVID-19. This pandemic moved VR into the virtual office from a someday proposition to a fast track reality. Quickly many companies had to scramble to provide their personnel with the tools required for full time in this virtual environment. Interestingly, even companies with remote working programs in place found that shifting large portions of their workforce to a virtual environment required addressing some complex issues with ongoing adaptations.

Virtual Setup

Talking with Gathen Garcia, Public Service Company of New Mexico’s (PNM) manager of Drafting and Geographic Information Systems provided some insights on how a utility addressed the challenges and demands of setting up a remote workplace via a VPN (virtual private network). Garcia said, “PNM was not new to offsite connectivity. They have been doing it for over 30 years in one fashion or another, but not to the extent required by moving into a virtual workplace.” He also said, “One of the first issues PNM ran into was the challenge of the variety of computer hardware needing to be connected to the PNM system and the cybersecurity issues each category brought with them.”

Garcia went on to explain, “As it turned out, some employees didn’t have internet access nor home computers. Some employees needed a VPN connection for their company-issued laptop with its native software, which was pretty straight forward. Others needed a VPN connection for use their own home systems, which ran in complexity from super gaming systems to simple Chromebooks for remote operation of their office computers. They wanted to utilize all the company software and data bases they normally had access to, but in the virtual office setting.”

Meeting these requirements was tough, but not impossible according to Garcia. He said, “Every user brings a unique set of requirements and problems that had to be addressed. By cataloging users into client groups, PNM was able to address the cybersecurity issues. The applications issues were addressed by the platforms PNM used. Citrix was ideal for PNM’s business applications as was Cisco’s WebEx for video conferencing, online meetings, and screen sharing.”

He also stated, “For the power users, PNM took advantage of web-based multiple user software such as AutoCAD, MATHLAB, MathLab, PI System, and GIS apps.” Garcia said, “The most important aspect of these challenges is staying flexible and addressing each concern as it is presented rather than trying to set hard fast rules. After all no one has really done this before on this scale, so we’re writing the standards as we go.”

Virtual Smartgrid

It wasn’t just setting up a virtual office that proved to be a head-scratcher for the industry. The power delivery system needs to provide their personnel with connectivity for all the sophisticated digital tools the staff uses on a daily basis at the workplace. Keep in mind, over the years, the owners and operators of the grid have been investing in smart grid technology.

A tremendous amount of effort and resources has been spent deploying these schemes, and it is paying off with a dynamic grid that is self-managing. Systems such as advanced asset management platforms, load management schemes, dynamic line rating and modeling programs, fault monitoring and isolation systems have become essential in the daily operation of the grid.

These systems provide flexibility to operations and improve maintenance by knowing the real-time condition of the elements and components of the grid. They are designed to give utilities the ability to monitor and control everything from the transmission system to the distribution network. However, with the fast changing events of today, these and other cutting-edge programs need to be accessible by offsite staff members. And it can’t be limited by location of those employees.

Jim Walsh, the general manager of Grid Software for GE Digital said, “COVID-19 is challenging utilities to allow their employees to work remotely with the ability to access ‘mission-critical’ systems. GE Digital has connectivity it can offer. Whether it is in the office, the worksite, or the home office. This connectivity provides safety first for both GE Digital’s employees and the utility’s staff with whom they are working. GE Digital understands that no one in the industry can take a month or longer off and keep the power flowing.”

Walsh explained, “GE Digital is offering a special 90-day free trial client license for our read-only, Digital Energy Experience Web User Interface (GIX) for Advanced Energy Management System (AEMS) displays and Distribution SCADA displays. He also stated, “With this application it is possible to the utility’s staff to access designated areas without being physically there. It can allow an engineer to see what is going on in the control room and see all of its displays without being in the control room. They can work in this virtual environment from anywhere and at any time with the highest level of cybersecurity.”

Augmented Reality

Adding to the wonders of the virtual environment is the digital technology of augmented reality (AR), and it’s providing some remarkable applications. For several years large utilities such as Duke Energy, Consolidated Edison Co., and others have worked with the Electric Power Research Institute on wearable technology and AR. Originally this was developed for restoration work, but there are many situations where this is valuable.

Something as simple as attaching a GoPro to someone’s hardhat is proving invaluable in a isolating situation such as being faced today. Feeding that GoPro’s video output into a smartphone video conference link to the offsite support team and suddenly everyone on the team has access to what is happening in the field. In this time of working remotely, this technology makes it possible for everyone to be virtually together, but it doesn’t stop there. By combining this application with the familiar drone technology, it takes AR-infused video conferencing to a new level. Drones can be fitted with all manner of tools including infrared and visual cameras, LiDAR systems, GPS, etc., and it can all be streamed to the team.

Integrating VR and AR and tying them to applications like digital twinning, asset management systems and other advanced smart grid technology is proving to be a powerful tool. It gives the remote staff access to what some are calling mixed reality, and it becomes transformational. These digital technologies are redefining the workplace and we will never be the same!

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