The techno-generational divide between the legacy analog power grid of the past and the modern, digital grid of the future may lie in the three-dimensional and colorful world of augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR). We are learning how AR/VR and its wearable technology can help us bridge the real world with the digital to become as common as iPhones and tablets, saving money and time while enhancing safety and training.
We are learning how AR/VR and its wearable technology can help us bridge the real world with the digital and possibly save time, money and keep employees safe.
In 2017, a partnership between AEP’s IT and Transmission Engineering teams led to an AR/VR proof of concept. Employees pitched the idea of AR/VR as a business tool for virtual site visits of field operations. One of the project’s deliverables was a white paper to document what employees will need to know in order to use AR/VR technology to meet a business need. AEP also signed on to an Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) study identifying practical AR/VR applications in the industry.
The proof of concept project investigated whether physical site visits by transmission stakeholders can be done virtually. Through a virtual site visit, a single employee equipped with the AR/VR goggles can enter a station and interact with stakeholders remotely through web streaming. A key finding of the project was that people who wear the goggles and immerse themselves in the experience of AR/VR actually forget they are not physically there and start solving problems through what they are seeing. It demonstrated that we can collaborate remotely, using technology to “see” our way to a solution. In addition, being able to study and possibly identify defects in construction projects before they are built would save time, money and keep employees safe.
The success of the proof of concept led to three new capital projects for Transmission and Generation. The first Transmission effort will focus on validating new Transmission substation standards by visualizing aspects such as clearances and safety concerns. This allows engineers to iterate and improve on the design prior to construction eliminating costly rework. The second Transmission project will create a virtual reality presentation of the BOLD® design, showing potential customers the technological advantages over traditional transmission structures. Learn about the project in Generation that came from the 2017 Innovation Blitz.
Drones in Flight
Drones are an effective means of inspecting power lines. In 2017, Indiana Michigan Power and AEP Transmission started using a camera-equipped drone for power line patrols to test how well the drones work for inspections. Among the expected advantages include:
The use of drone technology is beneficial for a variety of inspection applications across our generation, transmission and distribution system.
- Cameras can rotate 180 degrees, allowing them to capture images underneath components on the structure, such as insulator assemblies, compared to helicopter pilots and observers, who can only look down;
- Increased safety by not having people climb a tower or ride in a helicopter;
- Drones can access hard-to-reach areas possibly not accessible by helicopter;
- Drones are quieter than helicopters, which is a benefit when flying in populated areas.
We also use drones to conduct inspections of generation, transmission and distribution equipment. Drones can also help us assess damage more quickly after an event that causes an outage; they were an important tool after Hurricane Harvey caused severe damage to our transmission and distribution system in Texas.
Finding the right solution is easier when you can see the problem. When developing or updating standards for transmission substations, a set of drawings is generated to provide guidance to support different stakeholder needs within the production environment. As needs change, the drawings and guidance have to keep pace with the changes. Creating these updates is time consuming and relies on the ability of stakeholders to mentally translate a two-dimensional drawing into a real-world application so it can be reviewed for accuracy.
We are creating a new three-dimensional (3D) model before developing the drawings, allowing us to use augmented reality for a more effective visual review of the standards. By creating an immersive experience, experts in multiple locations can simultaneously review the work, reducing the risk of errors and the time it takes to complete the job.
This type of modeling also creates an opportunity for people who work in substations every day to physically move around in a 3D model environment to look at something that does not yet exist. This gives our workers the opportunity to “see” and “feel” if something needs to be changed in their designs, based on their experience in the model.
Upgrading underground infrastructure sometimes requires finding it first. AEP’s transmission team identified a business need for a more efficient and cost-effective way of locating underground structures that were built decades ago, so they went about finding a solution. They recognized Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) devices’ improved accuracy, making 3-D modeling easier. The “lawn mower-like” device, equipped with GPS, moves across the ground without causing damage and saves time and money while improving safety. It is also a more environmentally-friendly solution for brownfield projects. AEP Transmission applied this technology for the first time to update a 1960s vintage substation in Ohio.
The GPR allows engineers to see clear images, comparing what they are seeing to existing diagrams, so they can optimize the routing of new underground facilities. Construction crews can also use the data from the GPR to potentially minimize the amount of hydrovac for digging a trench. Hydrovac is a slow and time-consuming excavation technique that uses high pressure water to “dig” inside substations, while avoiding damage to underground cables. The resulting wastewater and soil have special disposal requirements. This new technology can minimize that need.
The GPR technology is cost-effective because it can reduce the amount of hydrovacing, and reduce any waste/spoils, that would have to be removed.
In 2017, a revolutionary method for inspecting the internal components of power transformers was piloted by AEP Transmission using a decommissioned 1950s-era transformer. Normally, internal transformer inspection and maintenance requires downtime and the time-consuming and expensive process of draining the large amounts of oil from inside. Once the oil is removed, a specially trained employee then has to squeeze inside to physically examine the components.
The team, working with the Electric Power Research Institute and software vendors, tested a remote-controlled robot that could be lowered through the top of the oil-filled transformer. The robot was maneuvered to “swim” through the oil to inspect the various components. What testers saw was a game changer. Rarely seen, clear images of internal transformer components were captured allowing engineers to conduct an inspection without putting a person inside the transformer. The data collected will give us useful end-of-life information about the condition of internal components and may help with evaluating future maintenance needs. Most importantly, it improved the safety environment for our employees.
AEP uses prefabricated packages to build transmission substations more efficiently while reducing cost, waste and length of outages for construction.
AEP Transmission continues to improve upon the way projects are designed, engineered and built. In 2017, we continued experimenting with prefabricated packages to build transmission substations more efficiently. An added benefit is that this approach also reduces waste normally occurring in traditional construction methods.
We built five prefabricated projects in 2017 (Indiana, Oklahoma, Texas and two in Ohio) and currently plan to pilot 40 more projects during 2018 and 2019. As we increase the amount of prefabricated projects in our pilot, we continue to find more areas where this application is beneficial. Among the 40 projects included prefabricated packages to build buses, foundations, substation service tertiary structures, modular high margin cap banks, and more. We are planning to extend this approach to substation configurations and transmission line installations.
We first considered prefabricated packages as a way to reduce the number of construction labor hours on the site for each project. The first Pre-Fab Station Installation in Appalachian Power demonstrated that the use of a major pre-assembled component, factory-built and transported to the station site, improved field safety and significantly reduced construction time. It took 10 hours to install the pre-fab station, compared with three to four weeks using traditional construction methods that involve installing and welding 516 parts on the site. This approach also generates significantly less waste that would have to be removed.
With each pre-fab project, we are learning there are more ancillary benefits than just reducing construction labor hours. These include:
- Reduced length of outages for construction
- Faster installation
- Construction is less dependent on weather because it is fast-tracked
- Reduced risk of missing parts
- Enhanced safety as workers are exposed to fewer risks associated with construction
- Reduced waste from packaging, which reduces environmental impacts at job sites
- Minimal material management required because the station comes prefabricated