Guided by GIS

Utility relies on rugged notebooks and mapping software to pinpoint precise location of electrical poles.

Surveyors and construction crews at North Arkansas Electric Cooperative roam around -- a lot. It's their job to build and maintain about 5,000 miles of power lines in a mountainous, rural seven-county region. They also have compute-intensive needs and rely heavily on geographic information system mapping software and a large database to help them locate and track the co-op's 90,000 electrical poles.

Sometimes workers even need to leave their trucks and drive all-terrain vehicles to their work sites. Global Positioning System devices and the GIS mapping software help them find the precise locations for building electrical services for new and existing homes and businesses. For the utility's IT department, it's a no-brainer to equip employees with powerful and durable notebook computers.

"I'm sure other companies can get away with handhelds or smaller laptops, but we require horsepower," says Jim Blackmon, manager of IT at the 125-employee utility, which provides electricity to 34,000 co-op members. "Our mapping software is a full-blown application with an extensive database. We require plenty of hard-drive space, RAM and a big screen -- 15 inches at a minimum -- so our construction personnel can see the maps."

About four years ago, the utility's IT and engineering departments bought a new, upgraded version of the mapping software and began equipping trucks with notebook computers. Blackmon first standardized on Hewlett-Packard systems, but this year, he switched to Panasonic Toughbooks and bought 10 of them. Their rugged form factor is important because the crews are often out in the wilderness and carry the notebooks with them as they ride their ATVs or walk in the woods, he says.

Businesses can provide employees with ubiquitous Internet access through wireless PC cards from cell phone providers. But the utility's mobile employees don't need constant Internet access. Their notebook GPS works through satellite communications and doesn't require an Internet connection. During the workday, when employees return to the co-op office, they can connect to the corporate network to check their e-mail.

The notebooks came in handy this January when a huge ice storm hit northern Arkansas, damaging or destroying about 4,000 electrical poles and knocking out electricity for many residents. Employees spent three weeks working 15 to 18 hours a day to get services back up and running, and the notebooks played a critical role.

The phone systems were down, making communication difficult. But using the GPS and GIS apps, crews were able to keep track of where they were, document storm damage and report on the repairs they were making. At the end of their shifts, employees returned to headquarters and, with their computers, uploaded everything they had completed that day onto the servers. That updated the database, providing the entire company with an up-to-date view of their progress in returning services to normal, Blackmon says.

"It was a major catastrophe," recalls Blackmon, who kept IT operations running with generator power during the first few days after the storm. "Everything here is spread out with miles and miles of country roads, so during the storm, we used the computers to find out where everything was located. We'd go out, map out and document everything that was down, and we'd send crews to clean up those areas."

Sep 22 2009