The thread that connects the legacy analog power grid of the past with 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 smart-phones and tablets, saving us money and time while enhancing safety and training efforts.
We began learning about the benefits of AR/VR when we initiated a proof of concept in 2017 as a potential tool for conducting 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. What we learned will improve operational efficiency and safety for our employees. For example, a single employee equipped with the AR/VR goggles can conduct a virtual site visit, entering a station and interacting with stakeholders remotely through web streaming.
We have found 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. This demonstrates that we can collaborate remotely, using technology to “see” our way to a solution. In addition, this technology enables us to study and possibly identify defects in construction projects before they are built can keep employees safe.
We have developed several new projects around this exciting technology. These include:
- A mobile phone application for the BOLD transmission line that incorporates AR, giving viewers a real-world look at the structure on their phone. In addition, we developed two Microsoft HoloLens applications (a mixed reality technology). One is used to share information about BOLD with industry and public stakeholders. A second version is more technical for engineers.
- A mobile app that allows workers at one of our power plants to view certain types of equipment through a phone’s camera to see real-time data and visuals. This allows employees to stay a safe distance from the equipment while inspecting its performance.
- We are leveraging Microsoft’s HoloLens to enable transmission engineers to remotely collaborate on station standards design. They can virtually walk through their designs in an immersive 3-D experience to correct potential issues earlier, before construction begins.
Drones in Flight
Drones are an effective means of inspecting power lines for regular maintenance and to survey damage after storms. In 2017, we began using a camera-equipped drone for power line patrols to test how well the drones work for inspections. We also use drones to conduct inspections of generation, transmission telecommunications and distribution equipment. The advantages include:
- Cameras can capture images underneath components on a structure, such as insulator assemblies, compared to helicopter pilots and observers, who can only look down
- Safer working conditions because no one is required to 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
Drones also can help us assess damage more quickly after an outage. In late 2018, an ice storm swept through the Appalachian Power service area, leaving more than 50,000 customers without power. Following the storm, we hired a commercial drone company to test the effectiveness of drone fly-bys to survey the damaged areas. Within 30 minutes, the drone pilot identified three spans of downed wire and one span where vegetation needed to be cleared. The drone video was also streamed directly to our operations center for further analysis by our employees. The drone flight saved at least a half-day of work and kept employees out of challenging terrain.
As drone usage becomes more widespread, we are establishing a governance structure to ensure our use of drones complies with specific requirements around physical and cybersecurity, corporate risk assessments and federal regulations.
Transmission Integrated Design and Construction
Integrated design and construction (IDC) is a new process to bring cost and schedule certainty to projects. It requires the creation of 3-D and 4-D models that help guide collaborative stakeholder discussions and facilitate the early engagement of construction experts. The IDC process also allows engineers to design and build a project virtually before steel goes in the ground, enabling us to identify and mitigate issues that could cause project delays and cost overruns. The IDC also improves safety because the work is done in a virtual environment rather than in the field.
In 2018, AEP Transmission leveraged the IDC process for six station projects that are in different stages of development. We are learning important lessons that will improve future project work. Brownfield projects are among those that benefit most from the IDC process because of their complexity with sequencing of work, limited construction space and the engagement of multiple stakeholders.
Since 2015, AEP has increasingly worked with prefabricated technology to build transmission substations more efficiently, safely and less expensively. In addition to efficiency gains, prefabrication can reduce the length of construction-related outages, speed up installation, improve safety by minimizing risk exposure and minimize waste. There were 14 prefabricated bus and structure installations in 2018, with 17 more currently projected to be installed in 2019.
In 2018, we installed 184 prefabricated foundations in eight different stations, including four hurricane restoration projects along the Texas Gulf Coast. The ability to prefabricate foundations and streamline material handling and construction allowed us to restore station functionality more quickly than would have been possible using traditional construction methods. In fact, it only took approximately 30 minutes to complete bolting the prefabricated bus and structure assembly onto the awaiting columns at the Verhalen Substation near Pecos, Texas.
It is our intent to make these foundations the standard, rather than the exception, as cost savings and time efficiencies grow.