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Crew-Based Technology’s Adoption Goes Mainstream

June 8, 2020
Four major utilities deploy technology in different ways for their vegetation management programs.

The world of vegetation management is complex, and no two utilities are the same. While some utilities continue to embrace well managed, cycle-based trimming, others are shifting to prescriptive trimming to increase reliability and cut costs. With the strengthening of mature vegetation management practices, and adoption of new methodologies, has come the steady shift into the next phase of the innovation adoption curve: crew-based technology.

Over the past few years, crew-based vegetation management technology has seen remarkable growth and is now reaching a tipping point. What was once the influential domain of a few early adopters has now become mainstream as utilities have gained a clearer understanding of crew technology’s immediate advantages and longer-term potential.

Five main factors drive adoption:

  • Range of functionality and specific use cases with proven benefits
  • Ease of set-up and configuration including easy-to-deploy apps
  • Compatibility with existing operations and infrastructure
  •  Availability of custom service models
  • Trust in the maturity and reputation of established technology partners

When it comes to digital transformation, vegetation managers often benchmark other utilities and associated best practices that they should be leveraging. To aid in this effort, the following are four, high-level case studies from major utilities that are deploying crew technology in very different ways.

1. Easy-to-Deploy Apps on Contractor-Owned Devices
In 2017, Georgia Power embarked on an initiative to radically transform its approach to distribution vegetation management—changing from a traditional work-to-standard, cycle-based approach to a condition-based approach supported by planning arborists and selective use of LiDAR. To achieve this transformation, Georgia Power understood it would need a way to effectively and efficiently communicate to hundreds of field crews across the state the exact location and details of the work to be completed. With the goal of quickly operationalizing their new vision, Georgia Power looked to establish technology that could be easily configured and deployed in the cloud, enabling a flexible, bring-your-own-device (BYOD) approach for contractors while meeting rigorous IT and cybersecurity standards.

Within a year of initiating the pilot, Georgia Power was assigning work electronically on a GPS-enabled map to contractor-owned phones and tablets and receiving data back from the field with daily work completion status and exception notes.

While the benefits of this approach are many (i.e., speed to market, ease of deployment, and reduced utility burden of contractor-managed devices), one of the most compelling benefits is the easy-to-use app for contractor crews, which has enabled widespread adoption.

2. Traditional BYOD Approach With Innovative Service Model
A large, independent, transmission company took a different approach with BYOD for its contractors. They purchased, designed and implemented vegetation work management software for their employees and contractors but only provided field computers to direct employees and contract arborists. The crews and general foremen performing the line clearing work were required to provide their own, contractor-owned computers to run the software.

This utility elected to house the central database for their work management software in a secure, cloud-based environment built and maintained by its technology partner. This strategy allows them to permit contractor-owned devices to access the data because the servers are separated and isolated from the utility’s sensitive information systems.

As common with work management and arborist software, this utility plans and executes line patrols using the technology and documents the work required during the current line clearing cycle. This work is then dispatched electronically to contractors. Crews receive work locations and corresponding work instructions on a GPS-enabled tablet.

As work moves through the various steps of planning, completion, contractor approval and utility approval, the utility collects all of the information needed for NERC FAC003 compliance, and has solid documentation that all needed work is being completed for safety and reliability goals for non-NERC lines.

Importantly, because the contractor-owned devices are not supported by the utility’s IT department, the vegetation management group enlisted the help its software vendor to establish a contractor device support helpdesk. This third- party provides crew leaders and GFs with direct support for hardware and software issues, reducing the burden on both the utility and their contractors’ in-house IT departments.

3. Consolidated Platform for Cycle-Based Trimming and Customer Trim Requests
In 2019, the distribution team for a large utility in the upper Midwest rolled out a manager and arborist software solution and are presently in the process of deploying crew-facing software to contractor crew leaders and general foremen. This utility addresses its cyclical, preventative maintenance via a span-to-span, specification-based approach that does not include pre-planners identifying work ahead of crews. Crew leaders can mark spans complete in map-based crew software, allowing the utility (and contractor leadership) to monitor and measure the work progress on each distribution circuit. The utility immediately receives data from the field regarding any exceptions or refusals and can deliver audit feedback for defects electronically.

The other primary use of crew software is the assignment and completion of customer tree trim request tickets within the same platform. To enable this, the utility’s vegetation work management system is integrated with its call center and other systems that originate external trim requests. These tickets are automatically mapped using software-based logic, routed to an arborist for review and dispatched. Like other utilities who have published results of such programs, this newly implemented approach is expected to reduce the cost and time of managing these tickets through better communication and efficiency relative to manual, paper-based processes.

In addition, while this utility has elected to support a BYOD strategy with its line contractors, it has implemented a third- party security model to meet ever-increasing cybersecurity standards. For contractor-owned devices to be approved for utility software, they must be managed by a Mobile Device Management (MDM) system. By using AirWatch from VMWare, an additional layer of security is provided over the standard, device-based security. The line contractor can control the software installation and application upgrades on their field devices—primarily iPads, in this case—and can remotely erase any utility data from the devices directly from the contractor’s IT department.

4. Early Adopter of Utility-Owned Devices for Enhanced Security
For those considering going digital but are uncomfortable with BYOD and/or hosting, there’s another path forward and it’s tried-and-true.

One, large, southeastern utility was an early adopter of crew technology, originally giving their transmission line clearing crews the same application on the same rugged laptops that their foresters used to conduct line patrols. To meet NERC FAC003 compliance, the crews demonstrated that they had completed all work prescribed for the cycle by updating the status in the arborist planning tool. The foresters then audited the work—and the information of every work location then entered their permanent, historical record for documenting compliance and supporting audits.

When crew-specific technology was introduced, this utility migrated to the new, simpler application. This was an early example of what is now an industry-standard practice: giving crews purpose-built, vegetation work management software.

Because this utility was an early adopter, its work methodologies were well-honed when disaster struck. In 2017, during Hurricane Matthew, crews received work locations from foresters on helicopter patrols and the work was dispatched rapidly, sometimes from the air. This enabled the transmission vegetation management group to have among the most up-to-date and reliable data about the restoration status of any department in the utility.

In addition to aiding in regulatory compliance and emergency response, the crew-facing technology at this utility has facilitated significant efficiencies over time. Because many work locations within the utility’s 5,000 miles of transmission corridors are cyclical in nature, their vegetation work management software is capable of automatically dispatching as determined by the patrolling utility forester. This saves time in the patrol process and ensures that crews navigate to the correct work location via GPS.

As an early adopter, to maximize security and drive adoption, this utility deployed its crew technology on utility-owned devices and continues to utilize this approach today. This requires that they onboard contractor crew leaders and general foremen into their network security groups for computer access. While this may not be the best option for all utilities, this process is manageable for this utility due to the relatively stable workforce assigned to the transmission line clearing work.

Crew technology is on the rise; however, each deployment will look very different as cost, expertise and data security remain important decisions for each utility. Although some challenges have yet to be overcome, growth in the adoption of vegetation management crew software steadily continues and utility technology partners are leading the way.

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