The utility industry is facing challenges including decades-old infrastructure and a rapidly retiring workforce. The young workers just entering the industry may dream of working with the latest in digital smart grid technology, but out in the field, these younger technicians can find themselves addressing analog repair challenges more familiar to engineers of generations past.

Change is afoot, however. Early movers in the industry are experimenting with the latest wearable technologies that will combine the real world with the digital -- and bring utility operations into the 21st century.

Smart wristbands with built-in voltage detection can alert workers when they’re close to a dangerous line. Similarly, wearable voltage and load sensors can be used to isolate outages and pinpoint power-quality issues from distributed resources into the grid. Wearable heat sensors might be used to identify hot spots in devices in the field, as is done today with smartphones.

In a twist on the wearable technologies concept, some equipment is being designed to measure the stats of the wearer, rather than infrastructure. The concept has its roots in telemedicine, where telemetry systems are used to wirelessly monitor patients recovering from cardiac surgery. 

“From a worker-safety standpoint, smart clothing and wristbands can be used to monitor key biometrics,” said Philippe Tellier, a utilities operations expert with PA Consulting Group. “A technician who has to climb up a transmission pole with layers of clothing could end up in a dangerous situation. A smart shirt that monitors heart rate could indicate that the worker needs to slow down.”

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) is teaming up with New York utility Con Edison to explore wearable technology as a possible solution to the techno-generational divide. EPRI and Con Ed hope to use augmented-reality devices to help employees in the field with tasks such as locating buried transmission infrastructure in disrepair and then applying the appropriate fixes.

“The problem is how to take employees who have a lot of experience and spread them over a wide area,” said John Simmins, a technical executive in the Information Communications Technology Group at EPRI who’s involved in planning the Con Ed trial. Indeed, technicians with firsthand knowledge of legacy systems are in increasingly short supply.

Using a Google Glass-like virtual-reality headset with a communications network, workers in the field can access GIS data and remote human expertise. In one possible scenario, workers know that there’s a fault in a power cable that runs under a street, and they need to access the cable through a manhole. 

“The workers would look up and down the street to find the closest entry point,” said Simmins. “That would seem to be an obvious task, but the street can be covered with snow or traffic that hides the entries. So wearable technology lets them glance down the street and know where to go.”

Once underground, “Someone in the back office can look at what the technician is seeing and give advice,” he said. The field technician, equipped with a head-mounted camera, microphone and headphones, will also be able to retrieve documentation on how to make repairs.

In another upcoming trial, Duke Energy will team with EPRI to test Atheer AiR smart glasses in a time-motion study that it hopes will shorten the time needed to recover from power outages. The experiment has much in common with the motion-study trials first used to squeeze productivity out of automotive assembly lines a century ago.

In Duke’s case, line-of-sight virtual menus in the glasses will help warehouse employees to navigate and retrieve parts while simultaneously managing inventory. The solution frees both hands to do work, compared to working with an iPad that would have to be set aside or, worse, coulb be dropped. Similar solutions are already in use to improve productivity and minimize error in the aerospace industry, where a multitude of similar-looking parts and complex assembly are the rule.

“For complex tasks, there can be significant savings and better service for customers. Your lights are out for less time,” said Simmins.

Wearable technology is nascent in the utility space, and EPRI, through its work with Duke, Con Ed and other power companies, hopes to better understand what makes sense from technical and business case perspectives. The results of the research will be shared to accelerate the adoption of applications that add the most value.

But hurdles to widespread adoption abound. 

“Getting the wearables right is the easy part,” said Glen Mannering, a utilities smart grid consultant with PA Consulting Group. “Getting the business and technical architecture right is the hardest.”

“Business integration and data are always on the critical path on these projects,” Mannering said. “In the end, you will need to integrate it into the enterprise processes and solutions, and that’s going to take time and investment. To be successful, it should look like an enterprise project by the time it’s done, and utilities should plan for that.”

GIS data that feeds into the system will also have to be extremely precise, lest field technicians go digging in the wrong place for critical infrastructure. Utilities have long collected SCADA data on grid functions, but wearable technologies will require that data to be used in real time in new ways.

“The other component that might not exist yet is mobile device management to allow the enterprise to manage all of those wearable devices,” said PA’s Tellier. “Think of all the infrastructure that’s behind an iPhone and that supports applications. Wearable technologies won’t have the same scale as an iPhone, but all the layers of infrastructure are needed and must be put in place.”

Finally, there’s the challenge of developing software applications that take into account the varying form factors likely in future wearable devices and their myriad small screens. 

Despite the obvious challenges, the potential upside of wearable technologies beckons.

“Other industries have found a 15 percent to 20 percent increase in efficiency with augmented reality, with or without wearables,” said EPRI’s Simmins. “Can we transfer that to utilities?”