Utility turns on to tablets

Until recently, paper and pens always travelled better across rugged terrain than personal computers.

But thanks to advances in the way tablet PCs are made, technicians at Hydro One can now take their machines in canoes, ski-doos, all-terrain vehicles, helicopters and pickup trucks to remote

locations in Ontario without having to worry about destroying their cargo.

Earlier this month, the largest electricity delivery company in the province announced the purchase of Rugged iX104 Tablet PCs from U.S.-based Xplore Technologies Corp. to be used in most of Hydro One’s mobile field applications, including data collection and forestry management.

The utility has 125 tablets in use with close to 300 additional units being deployed, and 200 more on order.

The Xplore tablets were chosen because of their ability to withstand the rugged terrain that some Hydro One line people and installers typically encounter in the field, such as logging roads, off-road forest paths, choppy lakes and rivers, or blustery skies, says John Dobie, senior supervisor of technical services for Hydro One.

Within the tablet PCs are rubberized shocks that cushion all of the main components, such as the motherboard and disk drives, making them able to withstand high impacts if the PC is ever dropped. The tablets can also be submerged in water without consequence.

“”We’ve already seen them dropped in puddles and pools, and we fully expect them to be dropped in snow banks in the winter,”” says Doug Smith, president of Markham, Ont.-based Filbitron Systems, Xplore’s Canadian distributor.

“”It’s just inevitable when you carry a device in this environment, along with your regular tools, that something will be dropped.””

The machines will be used to record data that used to be collected with a pen and paper, including the location of remote hydro towers, transmission lines and poles. Such information ensures Hydro One has an accurate record of its vast inventory.

Location data may also be collected by staff members who maintain old hydro lines or give quotes on the installation of new lines for remote businesses or homeowners.

For Dobie, one of the main advantages of the tablet is its ability to process information quickly.

“”When a helicopter’s hovering over a tower, it could have taken three minutes to do the data gathering (with a pen and paper). Now, with the tablet, we do it in 11 to 17 seconds, and we gather more information than we used to,”” he says.

Some of the data recorded two or three years ago on paper still isn’t entered into the main database, he says.

“”Before, data was always incomplete and there was a high error rate. Now we’re having the data instantaneously available the next day. The data is accurate, we’re collecting more than we were before, and we’re seeing a 400 per cent productivity improvement.””

Speeding things up for data collectors is the tablet PC’s electronic pen and drop-down menus, which make a keyboard unnecessary, he says.

Learning curve with complex apps

While the interface is user-friendly, the actual applications are extremely complex, making for a “”relatively high learning curve,”” Dobie says.

“”The applications are still new and the tablets are still going through growing pains in deployment and support and user learning. So those benefits aren’t fully realized yet.””

These challenges, however, can be overcome fast enough for Hydro One to enjoy a 1.4-year payback period on its last rugged deployment of tablets, which includes all hardware- and software-related expenditures, he says. Each machine costs $3,500.

An added feature of the tablet that helps Hydro One staff do their jobs is its global positioning system, Smith says. Each of the tablet’s 40GB disk drives has a complete set of geo-coded maps of all the terrain encountered by utility workers.

“”How else would you identify where a tower is in the middle of Algonquin Park?”” he says, adding conventional methods such as numbers and barcodes haven’t been as successful.

“”If you put a number on it, you have to record it. If you put a barcode on it, you have to find where it is, and it may have come off over the years. So it was so much easier to identify where these (towers) are at using GPS.””

The GPS feature is also useful for utility workers who give quotes on installing a line or improving a line.

“”They create a working model using the pen as a sketching tool, and GPS automatically tells them the distance (between two points).””

Currently, Hydro One is four months into rolling out two initial tablet projects, with more expected in the near future. Smith anticipates the number of tablet orders to increase as the utility applies the technology to other areas of its operations.

Eddie Chan, research analyst, mobile/personal computing and technology at IDC Canada, says tablet PCs have an appeal for certain verticals, especially when it comes to simplifying and automating business processes, such as forms entry.

“”Obviously, when you have this set-up, and you have a modem, you can transmit this back to the head office (from a remote location). So in terms of return on investment, this does resonate with those particular verticals.””

Chan says the price of tablets has gradually come down over the last few years, making them an option for a wider variety of users.

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