Disruptive technologies, or disruptive innovations, are those technological advances that fundamentally change a market or industry, often by displacing an existing technology.
The history of innovation is one of disruption, and many of the devices and technologies we take for granted and use every day were once considered disruptive.
While these innovations are often met with initial resistance, such technologies should be seen as transformative rather than destructive, often increasing productivity, resulting in countless benefits and paving the way for further innovation. As technology advances, the routine tasks which often represent a drain on finances and human resources are made more efficient, freeing up more resources to direct toward other efforts and further innovation.
Disruptive innovation is all around us. In the recent past, wireless technology has fundamentally changed the nature of communications. In the last century, more and more of the dangerous jobs once requiring risk to personnel in various industries are now completed by machine. For instance, routine sewer inspections are now frequently completed using CCTV and other methods of remote inspection, reducing the need for workers to venture into the system. Advances in renewables like solar PV and energy storage seem poised to transform the electricity industry in the foreseeable future.
In the information age, as industry becomes more data-intensive, many disruptive technologies take a digital form. In the report, <>Digital Disruption – Short fuse, big bang?, consultancy firm Deloitte suggested that many of the largest Australian companies will face a huge shake up from emerging digital technologies within the next three years. Digital disruption is driving the next wave of technological evolution, and the utility sector is no exception.
Disruption in the utility locating sector
One of many fields to undergo various phases of innovation is that of utility locating technologies.
Understanding underground assets remains vital for utilities and construction contractors. In many ways it is becoming increasingly important as more and more assets are located underground.
Recently we have seen a move away from relying solely on manual records and the more destructive methods of determining asset locations, such as exploratory digging or potholing. Non-invasive surveying technologies like ground penetrating radar (GPR), sonar technology, radio detection and electromagnetic induction have experienced widespread adoption. Services like Dial Before You Dig (DBYD), which collate information submitted by contractors and offer it freely, also play a pivotal role.
The next phase in utility location will likely involve augmented reality overlays on mobile devices (such as tablets and smartphones), which use GIS data to visualize underground assets. One such solution is Augview, which displays geographic asset data as maps, text or as a 3D visualization transposed over a device’s live video feed. The data can be updated in the field and information about new assets uploaded in real time.
Like many of the most promising digital innovations in utility asset management, Augview may help reduce operational overhead and can be used on familiar mobile devices that many utility workers already carry with them every day. Mobile solutions are becoming more and more valuable for asset management in the utility sector. Processes that once required extensive paperwork or multiple devices are now completed more efficiently on one device.
Digital innovations in locating technologies may be especially significant in the utility sector, where other disruptive innovations (such as the integration of renewable energy into the grid) and the resulting changes in demand mean that many companies are seeking ways to reduce capital expenditure. Despite the need to reduce costs, underground utility location is too vital to neglect. Advances in mobile technology which can improve efficiency are often more cost-effective and reduce physical waste. The ease of updating data via this software can also improve data quality and make sure those data remain as relevant as possible.
The next wave of innovation
Augmented reality can work with GIS technology that collates the recorded GPS locations of assets from various sources to visualize their position in the real world. This means that via their mobile device’s live video feed, users can see and walk through interactive 3D renderings of buried assets such as buried cables or pipes.
Certain implementations like Augview can also perform spatial updates on incorrectly positioned assets while they are exposed, and update any missing critical attribute data for a particular asset. Users can associate geotagged photos with any such updates, allowing the asset owner to check any updates before they are committed.
The ability to communicate potential faults, safety notifications and accurate asset locations in such a timely manner represents a massive change in traditional processes – but it also offers great benefits over the existing methods, which can result in human error and take considerable time, leaving inaccurately recorded assets open to accidental excavation.
It’s this combination of features that has the potential to shake up the current conventions in the utility locating sector – and in doing so, revolutionize the field to create a more efficient and cohesive future.
An industry opportunity
While some may initially resist change, disruptive technologies need not be viewed as a threat by existing industry players. History shows that such advances in technology cannot be successfully prevented for any sustained period of time and the companies that survive disruption are those that adapt and embrace these changes rather than clinging to the old ways.
The benefits to utilities that adopt new technologies are manifold. Larger socio-economic changes in recent times have resulted in higher turnover of staff. Knowledge-rich employees who have stayed with a company for decades are now reaching retirement age and newer workers tend to stay in the same position for an average of only four to five years. Forecasts predict that this trend will become even more pronounced into the future, with the next generation of workers switching positions every few years.
In a situation of such high turnover, individual staff members no longer have years to learn the intricacies of every task from more experienced staff and then use that knowledge in the same role for additional years before passing it on in turn. Therefore, user-friendly utility location technologies with intuitive interfaces may be increasingly vital in ensuring that workers are equipped with the information they need.
This is especially relevant for utility location, given the drastic consequences of inadequate knowledge regarding the location of buried services. Hitting live underground assets can cause disruptions to important services, huge financial costs, injuries and even the loss of lives. Most utilities cite the safety of workers and the public as one of their foremost priorities.
Unintentionally disrupting underground assets during excavation, such as electricity cables and gas pipes, can result in dangerous explosions and fire, causing injuries or fatalities. Numerous instances of construction workers being hospitalised or even killed have occurred in the past, highlighting the necessity of effective utility location.
Even contact with less dangerous assets can cause substantial damage and result in significant financial costs and reduced productivity. In a submission to the Productivity Commission’s enquiry into Australia’s infrastructure, DBYD revealed that the inadequate recording of underground asset locations, much of which occurred during the construction of the National Broadband Network (NBN), resulted in 15,900 incidents of damage to telecommunications assets alone in the 3.25 years up to 2012.
The NBN, which involves the partial replacement of Australia’s copper telecommunications network with faster, more advanced fiber optic technology, is the largest single infrastructure upgrade ever undertaken in the country. Failure to notify DBYD about the newly installed subterranean fiber optic cable resulted in countless undisclosed assets being accidentally excavated, causing substantial damage. DBYD described the damages as having a “massive” impact on the community and resulting in “business disruptions due to service outages, extended road closures, project delays pending preliminary investigations and remediation, work safety issues, inflated insurance premiums and, ultimately, higher project costs.”
While DBYD is an invaluable resource, it relies on up-to-date data. Contractors must submit the locations of new assets on time to prevent such incidents from occurring. The easier and more streamlined this process is, the more up-to-date the data and the fewer assets at risk.
This may represent an opportunity for the integration of technologies such as Augview, which allow workers to conveniently and immediately update data as soon as the asset is installed. Coupled with existing surveying methods these technologies represent a powerful tool for more effective utility location.
Disruptive technologies, and more specifically digital disruption, may appear intimidating when first introduced. Yet not all new innovations are inherently destructive to existing players, and more importantly, technological advancements are instrumental in the evolution of the industry.
Those utilities that will continue to succeed into the future will be those that innovate and adapt to new technologies to maximize productivity and reach their potential.