Utilities are not only using ruggedized laptops for vegetation management applications, but they are also relying on this equipment to streamline their mapping applications. For example, for the last two years, Cumberland Electric Membership Cooperative has been equipping its linemen with convertible Panasonic Toughbook 19 laptop computers.

These computers have replaced the field crews' map books, which the linemen used to store in their trucks. In the past, the company relied on the linemen's experience to know the utility's system. They then decided to convert to a geographic information system (GIS) mapping system after performing a systemwide inventory of the service territory.

Since the company knew the laptops would need to endure extremely volatile conditions, the utility invested in a dozen ruggedized computers two years ago. If the utility invested in traditional laptops, it knew it would have to constantly maintain, troubleshoot and replace the laptops. The ruggedized laptops, however, can survive a 6-foot drop, feature a spill-proof keyboard, and can handle up to 220 pounds of pressure.

After working with DataSource Mobility, a Panasonic reseller, to deploy the notebooks out into the field, the utility focused on mounting the computers in the line trucks. Like NIPSCO, Cumberland Electric opted to go with the mounts from Gamber-Johnson. Space is at a premium inside the cabs of the line trucks. The mounts, however, allowed the linemen to easily access the laptops when they needed them, and then store them out of the way when not in use. The utility worked closely with its in-house maintenance professionals in its garage to design a customized floor-mounted base for the mount so it can squeeze between the seats. The linemen can mount the Toughbook 19 in the cradle as either a clamshell notebook or a tablet-style laptop.

Right now, the linemen are using the ruggedized laptops for map viewing using software from PartnerSoft. Within the map viewer, the linemen can eventually trace out a circuit and easily identify the number of customers who are affected by an outage. They also can look at the lines, parcels and electric model of the utility's system and study the distribution from the meter all the way to the substation. This information comes in handy on service calls, especially in the middle of the night. For example, if a lineman needs to drive to a certain pole, he or she can easily identify the location and verify information about the transformer or fuse in that spot.

The field professionals also can use the laptops to access the time sheet program. The utility installed Wi-Fi spots within their truck bays to allow the linemen to log on to the Internet and then enter their labor hours on their electronic time sheet. In the future, the utility plans to push service orders out wirelessly out to the trucks.

While the linemen were resistant to the shift from the paper-based map books to the electronic mapping software at first, they are becoming more open to the technology. The company gradually got the linemen comfortable with using the laptop and then offered two regional training events. During these meetings, the linemen had the opportunity to perform hands-on exercises in the classroom before trying them out in the field. Now, instead of seeing the computers as a challenge, they are instead viewing them as another tool to get their jobs done efficiently and safely.

Mark T. Cook (mcook@cemc.org) is the supervisor of geographic information systems and information technology at Cumberland Electric. He is a professional engineer.