Counties Power

Field computing - an Android approach

Counties Power has designed an Android-based application suite that uses integrated individual modules to manage electronic faults dispatch and the company's circuit inspection process.

Counties, already recognised for its early adoption of radio controlled switching and fibre optics, set up a working group last year tasked with identifying a way to unify its existing in-vehicle navigation and mobile data terminals, adding in asset lookup, maintenance activities and electronic dispatching.

The group found that in terms of IT requirements, something that was extendable, capable of real-time communication and low cost was important. It would have to reduce paperwork, be user-friendly for field staff, portable and have a long battery life. Mobile phone type devices, as opposed to then-traditional laptops and radio telephones, were seen as the solution.

Having examined what was readily available in the market, there was no existing off the shelf product that would fit the company's needs. By adopting and extending the emerging Android technology platform, Counties has been able to meet the increasing regulatory and operational demands on the business with an in-house product that is affordable and scalable. The result is a user-friendly technology that is popular with staff and has delivered improved customer service, greater productivity and efficiency gains, particularly in periods of high demand. Choosing to develop its own product for network inspections has saved the company over $30,000 this year, that it would have previously spent tendering out the contract.

Five key technical features distinguish the system from any competitors in the marketplace:

  • It has brought together discrete functions into a single integrated application
  • It is Not restricted to specific hardware, any device running Android OS is supported
  • Leverages the capabilities of open source Android and Google applications
  • Architecture that integrates with any modern database
  • Real-time communication and operation in areas of poor communication coverage.

Single integrated application

The Inspection module allows Counties to carry out its mandatory five-yearly inspection of its network much more efficiently and cost-effectively. Counties can view its network graphically to support a systematic survey of assets by its field staff, and organise just one visit for each asset. At the site visit, staff perform a complete asset inspection (including identifying any defects, creating a build schedule for repair, capturing coordinates of assets, taking photos and adding notes if necessary) and then synchronise this data back to the server in real-time.

The Search module gives the user the ability to search for any network asset using its unique identifier reference. It can then be viewed on Google Maps, navigated to from the user's current location so a circuit inspection can be initiated.

The Dispatch module allows customers to call in faults, have that fault assigned a priority and a field crew dispatched to attend to it. Service orders on the device are designed to improve customer service and provide for prompt repair through features such as one touch dialling of customer's phone number, address and asset location. The service order includes a credit-card sized work diagram that enables field crew to reference what is required for the job. Real-time status updates can flow both ways - from the customer care team to the repair team and back - which once again provides for accurate, timely and efficient repairs.

The Schedule module gives all staff shared access to Counties' weekly planner. The planner is updated by project managers and changes are available in real-time.

A number of other modules are currently being trialled or awaiting trial: Fault Room will allow control room operators and field staff to communicate over a video feed; Switching Book and Manuals & Videos will provide online access to material previously only available in hard copy; QMS - Quality Management System - uses search tool to access centrally managed company documents; and Emergency Assistance will alert the control room with a signal button.

Android and Google capabilities

The Counties' application leverages the capabilities of Android and Google in that it can be deployed and updated easily. It can operate on any hardware, brand and screen size running Android OS. There is virtually no limit to the number of devices that can use it concurrently, and it provides real-time information sharing - most helpful in areas of poor coverage.

The company has also established an independent staging database platform to manage synchronisation of its Microsoft Dynamics NAV ERP product with its GIS system.  The Android functionality and the middleware interface means the mobile solution should not be impacted by any ERP upgrades or platform changes.

The technology allows data to be stored locally and the maps to be cached, so that navigation tools and asset information can be accessed in field without a data connection. Asset data is synchronised to devices on an add/update/delete/schedule cycle so that changes made on individual devices are synced back to all devices running the application in real-time when there is connectivity and changes made on the application while in a no coverage area are stored until network connectivity is regained, at which time they too can sync. The application polls every minute to seek data updates and new service orders.

The Innovation in Electricity Award category is sponsored by Gentrack.