Cool Tools: Remotely Controlled Tools

Flir thermal camera readings on smartphone
Flir thermal camera readings on smartphone

Remotely monitoring or controlling tools isn’t new, but with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technologies and special apps, they have become easier to implement. Tool manufacturers are finding more ways to use them to make their products easier and safer to use.

Test equipment

In 2009, Flir Systems introduced a digital multimeter that could transmit readings wirelessly to a laptop equipped with a USB receiver.

“It was an exciting milestone that reflected the need to collect data for extended periods at safe distances,” said Richard Wexler, Flir director of marketing for instruments. “The same year, we also launched a video borescope inspection camera with a detachable display for remote viewing as far as 30 feet away. These were exciting firsts to kick off the mobile/remote trend in test and inspection equipment, and we have come a long way since then.

“Several of our apps also include workflow management and thermal cameras with smartphone connectivity. Some are geared for remote viewing of real-time readings, while others are focused on analyzing thermal images, generating inspection reports and managing jobs,” Wexler said.

Safety is the biggest benefit of remotely controlling test equipment or inspecting components.

Electrical contractors, he said, can monitor various electrical parameters at a safe distance while equipment is operating, providing a layer of separation from energized or moving equipment. Another advantage of remotely controlled testing equipment is easier and higher quality extended monitoring.

“Historically, we were limited to set-and-forget data logging with a device left in place for an extended period to collect data that needed deciphering and formatting,” Wexler said.

Now with mobile devices that can share images and readings, the diagnostic insights are much richer and broader in scope, helping to paint a bigger picture for predictive maintenance.

App-based reporting tools increase productivity and simplify office work. ECs can generate and email inspection reports on the fly, instead of heading back to the office to download images to a computer and manually compose reports.

Users of several Megger testers can see test results on smartphones or laptops.
Users of several Megger testers can see test results on smartphones or laptops.

“Not only does this increase productivity, it helps some contractors reclaim precious evening hours, [which is] the time when they often prepare their reports,” he said.

Flir apps provide extensive time, date and place data with thermal images, making it easier to identify the context of thermal images. Users can leverage a mobile device’s GPS technology to location-stamp images, much like the photos taken by a smartphone.

“Altogether, these advantages can lead to time savings and reduced costs, faster time to diagnosis and better documentation of troubleshooting results for equipment users,” Wexler said.

Megger Application Engineer Nick Rees said Megger offers insulation-resistance testers and digital, low-resistance ohmmeters capable of transferring test information to smartphones or laptops using a USB tether.

Enhanced safety, greater convenience and the possibility of automation are the key benefits, he said.

“Putting distance between the operator and the unit under test increases safety. It also can help achieve significant time savings and reduces paperwork burden by retrieving test results electronically via radio control (RC). Using remote control, we can set and record all test parameters and, in some cases, even greater detail than under manual control,” Rees said.

Remote control also offers big advantages in testing transformers, circuit breakers and similar equipment routinely used in power transmission and distribution systems. In these applications, particularly when the testing is being performed in an electrically noisy environment, it is advantageous to keep the test connections as short as possible.

Remote control can help reduce the risks when working at height, and it is not uncommon that testing must be carried out in electrically hazardous environments, such as EHV substations. In such cases, once the test set has been put in place and connected, the user can move a safe distance and perform testing with virtually no risk. The insulation resistance tester (IRT) could even be left in place and monitored remotely in instances where it is necessary to look for changes in insulation resistance over a period of time.

Another example is conducting testing on top of a large transformer. Keeping the connections short inevitably means the IRT will be in a hard-to-access location, and apart from the inconvenience, there may be safety concerns. Remote control provides a complete solution. Even through the tester is on top of the transformer, it can be operated safely and conveniently from ground level.

Rees expects demand for remote control to become increasingly mainstream.

“The use of smart devices lends itself to greater use of RC,” he said. “As we are a company that puts safety at the forefront of its products, we need to carefully control the way in which this technology develops. The user must always be in safe control of the instrument under any circumstances.”

DeWalt remote-controlled dust extractor
DeWalt remote-controlled dust extractor

Basic power hand tools

For many basic power hand tools such as drill/drivers, rotary hammers, demo hammers, various types of saws and others, settings adjustments are made manually. However, there are smart tools available that allow remote changes to tool settings using a smartphone.

DeWalt Product Manager Ricky Cacchiotti said DeWalt has had remote, trigger-operated tools since it launched its first round of dust extractors.

“This was an exciting step forward as the user did not have to touch the extractor to start it,” he said. “Instead, the user could simply plug a tool in to the extractor—a rotary hammer, grinder or saw—and squeeze the trigger to turn on the extractor. In 2019 we are advancing this technology and launching three cordless tools that have new DeWalt wireless tool control technology imbedded—a 60V extractor, the industry’s first cordless wall chaser [to cut channels in walls] and a universal dust extractor.”

The new universal dust extractor is an OSHA Table 1-compliant cordless, lightweight and highly portable solution optimized for a wide range of tools and applications, including SDS-plus rotary hammers for drilling and chipping, percussion hammer drills and drywall cutout tools.

These wireless control tools feature a link symbol to indicate they can work remotely and in unison by linking the tool and the extractor, or the remote and the extractor.

Cacchiotti said DeWalt wireless tool control uses radio frequency like those used by garage-door openers.

“The linking process is very simple,” he said. “Push the ‘on’ button on the extractor to the link symbol, hold the link button down and pull the trigger on the tool or push the button on the remote. The entire process takes less than 5 seconds to complete.”

“One of the best features about our wireless tool control method is that the user doesn’t need to have a smartphone to manage the system,” Cacchiotti said.

The technology is embedded in all new dust extractors, and the user can simply link with the remote or the tool. One tool or remote can be linked to multiple extractors/vacuums at once. Every time a tool is linked to the extractor, it overrides the last known tool or remote. This avoids a situation where a user does not have the old tool or remote and allows the linking of a new one.

Tool tracking and management

Tool tracking and management programs are related to remote tool operation. Available for several years, tool tracking and management programs have evolved from closed computer programs to internet-based programs that enabled users to track tool and equipment locations in real time, as well as provide records of operation.

Cloud-based programs allow assets to be accessed from any device that can connect to the internet. These systems can monitor the location of any asset in the system whether in a warehouse, on a job site, in a vehicle or virtually anywhere. An electronic “fence” can be established around assets with an alarm triggered if it crosses a border of the fence. Hours of operation and maintenance schedules also can be monitored for equipment such as skid-steer loaders, backhoes, generators and light towers.

Providers of tool tracking and management systems include ToolWatch (www.toolwatch.com) and Trimble Navigation (AllTrak system) (www.mep.trimble.com).

Trend expected to continue

Most in the industry agree the use of remote control technologies for electricians’ tools is increasing and will continue to grow.

“In construction, I expect remote-operated tools to continue to grow, especially as contractors migrate to prefabrication,” said DeWalt’s Cacchiotti.

Flir’s Wexler believes there are many exciting directions with remote capabilities that are being explored.

Some of the adjacent initiatives over the years have looked at accessories that turn a smartphone into a thermal imager itself. Another organization has created an input device for test leads that turns a mobile device into a multimeter. Another turns a tablet into an oscilloscope. These hybrids, even with their present limitations, demonstrate that there is a lot of active and dynamic exploration into new ways for electrical contractors to test, measure and inspect.

Remote capabilities will grow with increasingly sophisticated test equipment and the apps to support them, Wexler said.

“For example, now that thermal imaging is built into electrical test equipment such as clamp meters, apps to support these added capabilities will enable increased productivity not only for monitoring and diagnostics, but also for report creation and job site workflow management.

“Look for capabilities that increase productivity,” he said.

About the Author

Jeff Griffin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Griffin, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at up-front@cox.net.

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