How Context-Aware Technology is Revolutionizing Utilities

By Kirk Eggleston | Dec 14, 2016

Context-aware computing has been around for decades, but with the ubiquitous nature of mobile devices and the surge of the industrial internet of things (IIOT), context-aware technologies are now poised to help drive the future of various industries — and the utilities sector in particular.

What is Context-Aware Technology?
While context-aware technology can often mean different things to different people, ChaiOne defines context-aware technology as a system that detects information and adapts accordingly to create a more relevant and interactive user experience.

How does Context-Aware Technology Work?
Context-aware technology works when hardware like sensors or beacons collect specific information on a machine (e.g., temperature, hours logged) and a user (e.g., geographic location, user preferences). Then, based on a set of variables unique to the user, relevant data is delivered to the right person at the right time via some kind of user interface (UI). Often, the UI is a mobile app.



Consider Waze, a popular traffic app, which uses a person’s geographic location, time, speed and the sensors in the mobile devices of other motorists connected to the app to gauge traffic patterns and identify the most optimum route for a driver to take to get to their destination. This is a prime example of a context-aware app.

How Context-Aware Technologies Apply to the Utilities Industry

In the utilities industry, safety and efficiency are the two primary benefits derived from context-aware technologies.

At power generation facilities — nuclear power plants especially — it’s necessary to have security in place to protect workers and the local community from harm. But utilities often pay a price for this security in overall efficiency. For instance, at nuclear power plants, all deliveries must be closely scrutinized, and sometimes bottlenecks at security checkpoints can result in decreased efficiency and deliveries not making it to their destination in a timely manner. To streamline the delivery process, a context-aware solution using mobile can significantly help eliminate bottlenecks at security checkpoints.

Here’s a snapshot of what a context-aware solution would like:
A delivery driver, enabled with a custom app on a mobile device, crosses a virtual barrier on his approach to the initial security checkpoint at a nuclear power generation facility. An automatic trigger then sends a push notification to a guard, also enabled with a custom app, to notify him the driver is approaching. The driver then receives a notification via the app to confirm specific details about his identity required by security. By the time the driver reaches the checkpoint, the guard has all the information he needs to conduct a vehicle search and approve the driver for entry.



This example is closely aligned with the type of context-aware solutions ChaiOne specializes in.

Context-Aware Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) Solutions

Imagine the value of a 3D virtual reality model of multiple substations or a fleet of power generation facilities. This isn’t the realm of science fiction; the technology to create realistic virtual models already exist — and the popularity of such models is growing rapidly.

While the virtual reality models created for the utilities industry today have largely been used for training and educational purposes, the importance of immersive virtual reality models will grow as technology becomes more sophisticated.

In the future, a virtual reality model of a substation, for instance — integrated with equipment sensors on the ground — could enable operations personnel to safely verify and validate a problem without sending a field maintenance crew to check on an issue.

Furthermore, if a crew does need to be deployed to fix an issue, they would likely be assisted with some kind of augmented reality (AR) device.

Here’s how the scenario may play out with AR:
A maintenance tech — armed with a wearable device (AR glasses) — arrives at a substation. His device immediately directs him to the issue thanks to a beacon signal near the equipment. Once the tech identifies the location of the issue, a safety warning automatically displays to alert the tech of any nearby hazards, and all of the procedures to fix the issue are displayed as well. Once the issue is resolved, the tech immediately documents the work order via his device — which is then immediately available to all other stakeholders.


The Evolution of Context-Aware Technology in the Utilities Industry

As context-aware technology becomes more common place, we will rely heavily on the platforms on which a digital product or digital ecosystem lives.

Recently, Exelon, one of the largest utility companies in the world, inked a major deal with General Electric for GE to deploy its full suite of Predix software across all of Exelon’s nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, solar and natural gas facilities.

Predix, which is touted as a powerful cloud computing platform, is expected to give developers the critical services and components they need to build highly effective and interconnected industrial apps.

Context-Aware Digital Revolution with Predix

According to GE, one of the many benefits Predix will bring to users is more meaningful interactions with machines through context-aware user interfaces.

What does that mean for context-aware technology in the utilities industry? Among other things, a significant increase in demand for industrial-grade context-aware capabilities on mobile and other devices, including VR and AR, for utilities stakeholders.

With the technology infrastructure quickly coming together in a way that directly benefits industry, context-aware technologies are sure to have an increasingly significant presence in the utilities industry.

With Predix — and other platforms built with industry in mind — the next generation of context-aware devices is well on its way to revolutionizing the utilities industry.

Want to learn more about context? Read ChaiOne’s full whitepaper on the topic.

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