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We have reached a critical turning point in how utility pole field data is collected. Companies and decision-makers are coming to the realization that there are more comprehensive, robust and accelerated ways to collect this data that defy long-standing practices quickly moving towards obsolescence. There is a substantial need to collect pole data efficiently for one-touch make ready, joint-use, pole load analysis, and pole attachment projects. It is easy enough to imagine a drone flying down a line of poles taking photos, or a car driving with mobile LIDAR scanning everything in sight. While intriguing, these new technologies are currently capable of doing only a portion of the job and are not a suitable solution for complete field data collection. In-person field data collection is needed to capture pole tags, pole ID’s, birthmark information among other pieces of data that are usually required with utility pole audits.
Overall, field data collection methods can be categorized into three groups; manual collection, semi-integrated solutions, and fully integrated solutions. When we talk about integrated solutions, we are referring to the sub-systems of a given process and how these individual elements streamline into one comprehensive solution. Manual collection implies that there are multiple physical methods being used to capture data by hand These elements are generally unconnected and constitute a non-integrated solution. Semi-integrated solutions have two or three manual methods combined with the inclusion of digital processing. A fully integrated solution represents the newest form of data collection which augments fielding capabilities and allows data to flow seamlessly from one system in the field through back office processing. ikeGPS’ industry-standard solution leads with the most widely adopted fully integrated system available today.
Here at IKE we strongly advocate for the fully integrated solution, not only because we know the profound capabilities that can be unlocked, but also because of our professional field experience with every collection method imaginable. We understand the perks and problems of each better than anyone. Here we will look at the process for each category of field data collection as well as how it stacks up in terms of accuracy, efficiency, and cost.
Manual field data collection has long been viewed as the reliable go-to method and is largely viewed as the most accurate method, even if it lacked efficiency. It involves recording measurements by hand from a fiberglass hot-stick. Since the first pole measurement was recorded more than a century ago, this has served as the standard for collecting utility pole measurements. For a long time, this method simply was the best available option. Yet, times are changing. Even today, it is used widely in combination with a GPS receiver and measurement wheel. In recent years, we have seen standalone laser rangefinders emerge as a popular replacement for the hot sticks in the manual collection process by offering expedited data capture and increased safety by limiting the contact fielders have with high voltage lines.
One of the critical problems with the accuracy of manual collection is the subjectivity of the measurements. The quality of data is entirely dependent on the person collecting that data and can easily differ from one fielder to another based on approach. In this case, the explicit accuracy relies on the exact positioning of the fielder and discretion in reading the measurements. Not only that, but it forces companies to rely on experienced fielders that are well-trained and knowledgeable in their domain. This is a rare and difficult employee to find in any job market potentially creating bottlenecks for a project that must stay on time.
Manual collection takes home the win for inefficiency and proves that time-consuming field data collection, although tolerable has no place in a modern workflow. The real headache is in the time spent processing the data in the back office, where employees spend 45 minutes or more per pole transcribing data and completing pole loading analysis. The slow speed of manual field data collection increases costs per pole and create work backlogs for utilities and contractors alike.
Often there is an illusion that manual collection is most cost-effective. At face value, a hot stick is more inexpensive when compared to an all-in-one solution. However, it is essential to take into account the cost of labor created by the slower field data collection speeds. This loss in productivity can cost companies not only money but valuable time that could be leveraged on new projects. People have trusted the manual method for decades because it represented a low-cost way to collect data. Now, there is an increasing need to deploy fiber for broadband service to millions, ensure aging network infrastructure resilience and ensure safety through utility storm-hardening. Industry-wide companies have realized that manual collection is inadequate for present-day demands which require more modern and efficient methods.
Now I know you are asking, what is a semi-integrated solution? Semi-integrated refers to the pieces of the manual collection process which are combined and digitized. In most cases, that means the hot stick is replaced by a calibration stick and a digital camera. Instead of recording individual height of attachment measurements in the field for conductors and equipment, the photo is calibrated based on a calibration stick with control points and then annotated in the back office. An external GPS receiver is used in tandem to determine the pole location and respective span lengths. In certain circumstances, the locations and spans will use satellite imagery instead of a GPS Reciever. Back office work is minimized by the digitization of some data as well as the partial software integration with numerous pole load analysis, make-ready engineering, and joint-use asset management software applications.
Semi-integrated solutions are the first step in removing subjectivity from traditional measurement methods which results in an accurate record that can be externally verified based on a photograph. While the issue of subjectivity is somewhat remedied, the accuracy can be affected by differences in equipment and there is no standardization to the camera calibration. Varying measurements for heights of attachment on the pole can cause issues upon scaling the photo. A phenomenon observed by Cologne University called “camera radial distortion” will cause measurements to vary significantly across an image if not corrected. Reliance cannot be placed on untrustworthy data when matters of safety are involved.
The primary benefit semi-integrated solutions offer beyond the manual collection method is that they streamline a portion of the back office work by partially digitizing the data captured. The enhanced digital collection process allows companies to more easily move data to other parts of a workflow and integrate with pole loading analysis software. While they are an upgrade from the manual collection method, the main efficiency pitfalls of semi-integrated solutions are the process slowdowns that can result from an incomplete workflow. A primary example of this concept is whenever a two-person team in the field is required to collect data at any given pole. One person positions the calibration stick flush to the pole while the other person captures photos and records notes. Requiring two people to perform an in-field workflow that can easily be accomplished with one person is cost prohibitive and can be inefficient.
The cost of semi-integrated solutions is reduced by the fact that the only specialized hardware needed is a calibration stick, however, there is still necessary hardware required. This expensive hardware needed as a fielder includes a decent DSLR camera and a GPS receiver that can cost over $1500. The cost of employing two-man teams for data collection added to these expenses can add up quickly. All-in-all semi-integrated solutions have the potential to produce usable data and manageable workloads for the price, but there are further cost-savings and efficiencies to be discovered when compared to fully integrated solutions.
Fully integrated solutions direct data through a single source and maintain continuity throughout the entire system without requiring involving manual processes between components. As it stands today, the only fully integrated solution widely available is the IKE solution which allows for consistency, accuracy, and reliability. This workflow uses dedicated field hardware and integrated software that combines necessary sensors to ensure there is no variability in measurement data. Once data is collected, it is then uploaded to a cloud asset management platform in which all annotations and further analysis can be completed. Furthermore, these definitive records can be exported to integrated software including SpidaCalc, O-Calc Pro, Pole Foreman, ESRI ArcGIS, Google Earth, AutoCAD and Microsoft Excel. Automating previously manual processes is a tremendous time-saver and the quality of data created by a single source of collection is unmatched.
Recently, to allow customers to further take advantage, ikeGPS introduced IKE Analyze as a core offering for our customers. IKE Analyze is an end-to-end solution for companies that can include field data collection, pole loading analysis and make ready engineering. Thanks to the fact that all data is originating from a single data source, IKE Analyze can reliably perform quality control, complete analysis and ultimately allow customers to scale efficiently. There was a realization that IKE needed to emerge as an industry leader in the pole business to maximize our value to others. So we are shifting from being a device-based business to a technology-focused, solution-oriented company. We leverage industry-expertise, technology and processes to put ourselves in a position of leadership that will allow our customers to be more successful than ever.
ikeGPS’ unique combination of sensors, workflow, and data processing yields the most consistent photo verifiable accuracy while minimizing user or transcription error within the dataset. Additionally, subjectivity is removed in a similar method to semi-integrated solutions because there is nothing that relies on the individual fielder’s discretion. Measurements can be instantly verified and at any time reviewed to ensure field data collection was completed correctly. There is never any reason to introduce doubt into a process.
Fully integrated solutions will always maximize efficiency by allowing data to flow directly from field to final deliverable with minimal transcription or manual manipulation. The ethos of simplification is apparent through ikeGPS’ unwavering commitment to innovation and constant refinement of the software behind the solution. The IKE solution minimizes recollect scenarios by paying close attention to every detail in this process and eliminating wasteful practices.
Cost & Payback
For a long time, upfront investment may have been a prohibitive factor for companies seeking to use the IKE solution. Although the value, accuracy, and efficiency were clear, the upfront cost of hardware and software upfront was sometimes a deterrent to customers. With IKE Analyze this upfront investment has been removed with the introduction of a per-pole pricing model. This provides an immediate return on investment and best matches the way that many customers operate their business being per pole or pole per mile.
While reading this, you may have arrived at the conclusion that there is a hierarchy in these methods, with manual collection at the bottom and Fully-Integrated solutions at the top. At IKE, we prefer to think of it as an evolution. Pole data collection started out as manual collection years ago, then it evolved into semi integrated solutions. Now, it has taken yet another step, and the best method available is the fully integrated IKE solution and its IKE Analyze counterpart. There is no other combination of advanced field data collection and back end efficiency that does the job like IKE. Undoubtedly, the next evolution of mass field data collection will involve drones and LIDAR. When that standard is set, IKE Analyze will be ready to optimize data from both those sources. Until then, we will keep providing and optimizing the IKE device that has already revolutionized field data collection.