Imagine a typical day at an electric cooperative in the year 2041.

Routine system monitoring, inspections and maintenance are underway. A line crew heads out into the field. New employees are being trained. Customer service is busy assisting members.

On the surface, it’s much the same business co-ops have been conducting for decades. But both at headquarters and out in the field, how that work is being done has changed dramatically.

Autonomous drones and specially designed robots are handling line, pole and substation inspections, diagnosing existing and potential problems, and making small repairs on their own after a human supervisor signs off remotely.

The line crew that’s been dispatched is reviewing up-to-the-minute data from a bigger problem spot as a self-driving utility truck determines and takes the quickest route to the site. Once there, a robot navigates the pole to make a preliminary safety inspection, monitoring an array of sensors.

If heavier equipment needs to be installed, a crew member dons an exoskeleton suit, taking the weight off their body and protecting against injury.

Back at headquarters, artificial intelligence (AI) software is keeping a close eye on system performance, freeing operators from SCADA management. The change allows personnel to concentrate on analysis and long-term planning, both of which are also assisted by AI.

Meanwhile, new employees have gathered to begin a training session. Some are in the co-op offices. Others are off-site. But they’re all together in virtual reality, using VR headsets to visit a virtual substation identical to one in the field.

Customer service personnel are also taking advantage of the latest in high-speed communications, with many working remotely. For behind-the-meter service issues, they access real-time data from smart breaker boxes and appliances to help sort out problems, sometimes linking to a live video feed from a member’s “smart glasses” to get a close-up look at what’s going on and determine what assistance is needed.

‘Less nuts and bolts’

This vision of life at an electric co-op 20 years from now may seem like science fiction, but most of these technologies—drones, robots, AI, VR and more—are already making their way into the industry, and advances in their capabilities are proceeding rapidly. The result will be a transformation in the way work at co-ops is done, says Venkat Banunarayanan, NRECA vice president for the integrated grid.

“We see the future of work being less nuts and bolts and more automation, more hardware, more technology,” he says. “You’ll see a lot of decision-making becoming more automated, using AI, rather than every decision being made by humans.”

In fact, the latest wave of devices and software are building upon each other, says Stanley McHann, NRECA’s senior research engineer and chief UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) pilot.

“All this technology is merging together at key points,” he says. “The drones and robots are talking on a high-speed network; your electric vehicles and everything else are talking on the network. They can be controlled by a dispatcher remotely, but they’re also using AI to operate more independently.”

Drones are already being used by about 30% of electric co-ops, McHann says, although a smaller percentage have integrated them into regular inspections. Use is also limited by Federal Aviation Administration requirements that they remain within the line of sight of operators. As drones become more capable, those restrictions are expected to be lifted.

An array of sensors, from LiDAR to thermal to high-resolution imaging, will provide a wealth of information, and drones could handle some basic repairs. McHann foresees a future in which drones won’t have to be carted out into the field but “will be based at substations and in critical areas along transmission and distribution lines,” allowing them to be quickly dispatched when needed.

Robots have far less industry penetration but are beginning to make their way into the field. Hydro-Quebec, a Canadian public power utility, is a leader in developing robots designed for utility work. The utility’s Linescout and Linerover are robotic platforms that can inspect energized power lines and carry out minor repairs, such as fixing broken conductor strands and ground wires.

Studies predict dramatic growth in robotics in the coming decades. A recent Boston Consulting Group analysis found that the worldwide robotics market could mushroom from $25 billion this year to $260 billion by 2030. The group also predicts vehicles with significant self-driving capabilities should be on the road within the next decade.

The biggest growth area is expected to be in semi-autonomous “service robots,” used in areas such as construction, inspection or maintenance.

“There’s an increasingly strong business case for automating some of the things field workers do,” both in operational efficiency and protecting employees from injury, Banunarayanan says.

‘We’re like avatars’

Some jobs will still require field personnel, and if the task requires heavy lifting or other sustained exertion, technology will again be transforming the work.

“You have exoskeleton technology coming along at an incredible rate,” McHann notes.

Companies such as SuitX and Sarco Robotics already offer exoskeletons, essentially wearable mechanical hardware that supports and protects its users, amplifies strength and protects against strain.

Those co-op field workers and others could be learning their jobs partly in virtual reality. Jo-Carroll Energy, an electric, natural gas and broadband cooperative based in Elizabeth, Illinois, is already making use of VR for training. The co-op has worked with a local company, DMI, to develop virtual environments that replicate co-op substations, allowing employees to navigate through the sites wearing Oculus VR goggles.

The co-op has integrated management personnel into the virtual experience, says Jesse Shekleton, Jo-Carroll Energy’s director of broadband operations who helped kick off the project during his prior role as director of engineering.

“We’re like avatars in there,” he says. “When you click on us while in the VR experience, we start talking to you. I go through a couple of safety protocols and then, Brad, he’s the engineer, takes you through the technical operations of the substation and related equipment.”

The VR experience offers several advantages, Shekleton says.

“You can take a crew and virtually visit multiple substations within a few hours, versus what would take potentially days if you had to physically go there,” he says.

He believes VR training will become commonplace in the future.

“We’re not just doing this because it’s kind of cool. We’re doing it because there’s data that shows the effectiveness of VR training, that what people learn in these environments is retained by a significant factor better than in any other training environments.”

He adds that VR illustrates how the different technologies advancing co-op operations are interrelated.

“The use of VR goggles for remote training of co-op personnel also highlights the need for more robust broadband in our rural areas,” Shekleton notes.

The same fiber requirements will exist to take advantage of augmented reality, he adds, which could overlay real-time performance data onto equipment when viewed on a computer screen or through smart glasses and handheld devices.

With much of the new hardware, AI and machine-learning will play a critical role, says Banunarayanan. But humans will remain central to co-op operations, he adds, both in making the critical decisions and in maintaining the member/co-op relationship.

“I don’t see the need for human interaction going away anytime soon,” he says. “It shouldn’t go away.”

The potential benefits for co-ops in the changing face of work include increased efficiency and reliability along with employee safety and health. The costs for the technologies driving the change are expected to fall as they become more common, but co-ops will still have to determine when and where investing in it makes sense, McHann says.

“No matter how cool the technology,” he says, “the key question is always how does it meet the needs of our co-ops and their members.”