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Simulation Technology: Remaking outdoor contracting projects with digital tools

By Gordon Feller | Dec 15, 2022
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Digital twin tools help utilities and electrical contractors take vegetation management into their own hands—and to the next level—by simulating real-world conditions. 

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Digital twin tools help utilities and electrical contractors take vegetation management into their own hands—and to the next level—by simulating real-world conditions. 

Users can set up a digital twin for their entire vegetation management process, enabling them to more effectively import and use critical data. This can consist of either raw data or information obtained when using light detection and ranging (LiDAR), a remote-sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges (variable distances) to the ground.

Why use this technology?

Users now have the means to do a better job with a host of related outdoor contracting challenges, including encroachment zone compliance. They have a much easier time building dashboards and reports for internal and external teams, thereby improving efficiency by reducing the amount of work needed. 

Here are a few capabilities provided to utilities and their contractors by a growing number of companies:

Build, iterate on and experiment with different 3D clearance zones and policies, and compare costs.

Construct pipelines to automatically analyze and compare new and previous LiDAR scans; automatically audit past treatment jobs when new data becomes available.

Create dashboards for field teams and management to gain network-wide understanding of encroachments and planned remediation.

Prioritize work based on failure consequence and network criticality on a per-span basis.

For utilities that need precision and cost optimization, new companies are providing advanced vegetation management solutions. Here’s a list of some features embedded in the digital tools, which are then included inside their technology offerings:

Precisely simulate cable movement under different wind and temperature conditions; compare conventional clearance zones to the exact physical movement of network assets.

Reduce dependence on frequent LiDAR scans by overlaying up-to-date satellite imagery; anticipate future encroachment by applying per-tree growth prediction.

Automatically triage and bundle trimming jobs and optimize vegetation management cycles.

Integrate and leverage historic and forecasted cost data to optimize expenditure.

What are the advantages?

One advantage of this emerging tech is that it enables utilities to run “Finite Element Analysis” (FEA) on all poles, cross-arms and subcomponents. This technology is helping utilities and their contractors perform this FEA “at scale.” There are four key elements:

Identify the “invisible” risks of poles and assemblies under high-stress or approaching maximum loading and prioritize remediation programs accordingly.

Simulate environmental conditions network-wide. Predict the consequences of extreme wind, snow and heat events before they occur.

Perform multipole failure analysis to identify points of elevated failure risk across the network.

Propose solutions and mitigations immediately—add guy-wires and splints, change material types and then rerun the analysis to immediately see the effects.

Conductor clash

Another advantage is that this technology provides a fix to the ever-­present conductor clash problem. Conductor clashing occurs when two wires come into direct contact, which can result in sparks and even molten metal dropping from the line—a common cause of wildfires. Measuring the risk of a clash requires precise network modeling and a deep understanding of a cable’s physical properties. The new technology helps users identify, triage, prioritize and eliminate risk of conductor clash across the network. It can overlay layers of historic and predicted wildfire regions, weather data and past reported events to help prioritize at-risk locations.

A third advantage is that simple tools help to calculate the precise encroachment distance of surrounding objects for every cable in the network. Simply set up the rules, define the desired weather conditions and receive network-wide results. Apply regional and jurisdictional clearance standards or augment them to your network’s specific requirements. 

Obviously, some clearance violations are more dangerous than others, so it’s important to have tools that logically prioritize field work and ensure appropriate maintenance. The hard work, such as assessing different clearance requirements for assets near roads, pathways, railways or other surrounding features, becomes a bit easier. 

Prioritizing and triaging encroachment problems makes it possible to first address the most hazardous, highest-consequence issues. These new digital twin tools enable us to maintain network-wide compliance to clearance standards.

About The Author

FELLER has worked to bring new ideas into the electrical contracting world since 1979. His articles have been published in more than 30 magazines, and he has worked with dozens of utilities, associations, investors and regulators. Reach him at [email protected].

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