When a Power Line Services  engineer is in the middle of an oil field programming a digital controller or in a helicopter surveying line conditions and consulting flight maps, he needs two things: the tools to do his job and a way to communicate with supervisors.
With hundreds of workers on the ground and in the air working on power lines for public utilities, regional cooperatives and major oil and gas companies, Power Line Services, based in Houston, has the first need well covered.
Until recently, it had only a partial solution for the second: smartphones for the field and standard notebook systems that engineers tended to keep in their field offices and trucks.
“Our people use their devices in harsh and extreme conditions, so anything in the field has to be resistant to dropping, heat, dust, liquid, vibration and static electricity,” says Director of Technology William Rhodes. “The notebooks we have in the field now aren’t rugged, so field workers tend to wait until they are in the field office or a truck to update a ticket. Sometimes they even drop paper tickets on the field secretary’s desk at the end of the day, which creates a lot of work.”
With an eye toward improving workflow and accuracy, Rhodes is now testing two rugged devices for field use: a Getac Z710, a 7-inch capacitive rugged tablet running Android 2.3; and a Getac E110, a rugged tablet with a 10.1-inch display running Microsoft Windows 7.
“By using something like this in the field, our workers will be able to take their machines to the job site to update job status and report their time, which improves accuracy and information flow to headquarters,” Rhodes says.
He expects to decide on one of the Getac devices  before midyear and to arm more than 200 workers with the units initially. After a user test period, the IT team will consider deploying the devices for workers in additional Power Line Services business units, he says.
The use of rugged mobile devices makes sense in many industries, especially those where workers operate in harsh conditions, says David Krebs, vice president of mobile and wireless at VDC Research. Tablets are more popular in industries such as utilities, healthcare and property assessment, while rugged notebooks are frequently mounted in vehicles in industries such as public safety and distribution, he says.
In addition to adopting rugged mobile devices to withstand vibration, shock, dust and extreme temperatures, companies are reaping other benefits too.
“Rugged devices are much more flexible in terms of input/output capabilities,” Krebs says. In businesses that have extensive legacy infrastructures, access still requires a serial port. “Standard tablets don’t have that, but rugged tablets do,” he says.
Users will also find more flexibility in how they interact with the devices. Touch screens are prime examples: Standard mobile devices don’t allow users to interface with the screen with a gloved hand or wet fingers, but ruggedized devices often do.
Capacitive touch is a chief reason that construction management firm Pinnacle/CSG is migrating from the Motion Computing  F5v tablets its two-dozen construction supervisors use to the newer F5t model. The newer model allows for capacitive touch with either a pen or a finger.
“When our construction managers are onsite, they have our subcontractors sign a daily safety log. Using an F5t, they can sign with a pen or finger — even with wet fingers,” says Cory McFarlane, chief visionary and president for the Tallahassee, Fla., company.
Average total cost of ownership for a rugged tablet, versus $5,000 for a standard tablet
SOURCE: “Strategic Insights 2012: Enterprise” (VDC Research, March 2013)
Pinnacle/CSG started down the road with rugged devices about three years ago when it became clear that standard notebooks weren’t surviving well under typical conditions. After a brief trial with standard tablets that didn’t fare well, the company started using the Motion Computing tablets.
The tablets, which support both Windows 7 and 8, have Microsoft Lync loaded on them, allowing field staff to collaborate with managers in real time. The units also have front- and back-facing cameras, which allows users to gather live footage onsite. They also have Bluebeam PDF software installed for marking up plans in the field, McFarlane says.
For the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative , moving to rugged technology has helped improve customer service. SMECO first outfitted its crews with fully rugged Panasonic CF30 Toughbook notebooks  in 2007, upgrading to CF31 units in 2011. Prior to 2007, field workers previously had no technology at all in the field.
“The primary motivation was to improve our outage management system,” says Network Administrator David Timmermann. “After a customer called in to report a power outage, it would get entered into our system and a paper ticket was created. Then the attendant would dispatch it through the radio. It wasn’t very efficient.”
With Toughbooks in the field, the process is now automated, resulting in faster processing of jobs and fewers errors due to lost tickets. The units had to be rugged, Timmermann said, because of the nature of the job.
“We wanted something that could take the abuse these units can take — heat, drops, liquid spills and rain,” he says.
Now that the outage crews are using Toughbooks with success, Timmermann is looking to expand deployment to stakers who redline jobs and the apparatus crews that work on transmission lines.