March 05, 2013, 12:14 PM — TUCSON -- Off-the-shelf consumer handheld computers are showing up in some of the most precarious of workplaces.
For instance, about 1,700 NextEra Energy wind turbine technicians recently began using Apple's iPod Touch handheld devices to help them service the gargantuan machines.
The iPods are loaded with technical information and repair diagrams that a technician can access while working some 300 feet above the ground inside and outside the clean energy company's turbines.
Having the information close at hand means the technician won't have to climb back down a ladder and then drive a truck back to an office to search for the data on a PC, said NextEra CIO Lakshman Charanjiva.
Charanjiva said NextEra, which he described as the nation's largest wind and solar energy provider, came up with the idea to provide the iPods to the wind turbine techs after making a site visit to a wind energy farm in west Texas. During the visit, he climbed with the techs up the ladder in the dark enclosure in 110 degree heat.
"It's not something you want to do if you have a fear or heights or closed spaces," Charanjiva told an audience at the Premier 100 conference here this week. "I needed to do something for those guys to save them time going back and forth without having to come down" for information.
Charanjiva afterwards estimated that iPod usage has cut six to eight hours of work per technician every week since the program was implemented about a year ago. The iPods are also inexpensive, up to 10 times less expensive than alternative rugged handhelds, Charanjiva said.
Recently, NextEra began putting Wi-Fi hotspots inside the technicians' trucks, so that they can access the Internet and the home office from a perch atop a wind turbine.
Charanjiva now plans to test the use of video cameras on the hardhats of technicians so they can stream video of a repair problems to experts working in the company's home offices. The only consideration is whether the Wi-Fi will have sufficient bandwidth to support the video, he said.
Charanjiva noted that the company's iPod program is "not rocket science, but has been a huge benefit" to NextEra. Meanwhile, NextEra subsidiary Florida Power and Light operates has replaced rugged tablets used by power outage technicians with 500 iPads.
The iPads, which cost less than $500 apience, are replacing $5,000 ruggedized tablets. While rugged devices often last five or more years, and iPads for two years or less, "the difference in price is worth it," he said.
Technicians can use the devices to track the locations of homes without power, since many homes are now equipped with two-way smart meters.
During a major hurricane, having outage locations delivered to a tablet in a truck means the technician can notice patterns in outages quickly, and thus better track where a major switch might be out.
NextEra can also overlay weather satellite information about the path of a storm on top of the outage data to to decide where to send repair crews.
Having that data has helped NextEra come closer to its goal of restoring power from storms within 24 hours, Charanjiva said.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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