Maps are so old school. Today it is all about satellites, remote sensing and GPS. Our readers are wired, using Google Earth, Virtual Earth, MapQuest and many other geospatial wonders. They download virtual driving routes to their GPS, and their iPhone apps give them instant access to a host of digital imaging services.

In 2008, Rick Bush and I covered the restoration efforts following Hurricane Ike. We went into unfamiliar areas, compounded by lots of storm damage, armed with a tiny electronic device. Rick had bought a Garmin Nuvi on the way to Texas. This toy was worth its weight in gold.

I was the driver and navigator, while Rick worked his phone arranging meetings with line crews, tree trimmers and many others involved in the restoration efforts. I was clueless as to where we were, where we were going and how to get there. The GPS performed flawlessly; we never missed a job-site rendezvous.

Tech Toys Are Necessary

This brings back memories of an interview I had following another hurricane. Bob Struckey, a transmission specialist for Georgia Power, was one of the folks sent to Mississippi to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. He told me he had stacks of worthless paper maps for the roads and transmission systems. The hurricane moved through, changing the terrain as it went. There were no landmarks, no street signs or any other reference points.

Struckey relied on his Panasonic Toughbook and its GPS, which was upgraded daily from data taken by helicopters equipped with light detection and ranging (LiDAR). The helicopters flew the devastated areas, recording the condition of the transmission and distribution system. These areas were not accessible through normal methods of transportation. The airborne LiDAR provided detailed imaging of exactly what was there and what was not. It gave the responders a big advantage in getting the power back on quickly.

Responders rebuilding after ice storms have told me similar stories of support for airborne LiDAR systems. The technology has proven so valuable that those who use it would not want to do their job without it.

Moving Into the Mainstream

Like so much of the technology used on the intelligent grid, LiDAR began as a niche technology for laser surveying. The results were impressive, so folks started questioning if it could be adapted to other applications. It has been moving steadily into the electrical utility mainstream ever since.

This intelligent grid technology is moving us from the plain-paper world of flat, boring contour maps to a virtual world of 3-D imaging. The forester, transmission engineer, vegetation manager and other utility personnel have the ability to zoom in and view an existing transmission line from just about any vantage point. Without leaving the office, one can walk a right-of-way corridor and see the condition of the line, including any encroaching tree limbs.

These 3-D imaging systems got quite a boost from the 2003 blackout, an event the media called tree trimming gone wrong. As a result, the government enacted a transmission vegetation management program.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission-mandated program seeks to prevent 100% of outages caused by vegetation. The program is intended to improve the reliability of the electric transmission system — a worthy goal.

Today's Toy, Tomorrow's Necessity

An offshoot of the LiDAR system is “terrestrial LiDAR.” Ryan Darling, the 3-D laser scanning manager for Darling Environmental and Surveying, e-mailed me recently asking if I would like to go with him to visit a Tucson Electric substation. That was a no-brainer.

After spending the last 35 years designing and building substations, I am always up for seeing a new substation, but Tucson is hundreds of miles from my office.

What Ryan had in mind was a virtual tour of a 138-kV substation. He and I connected via phone, and then he took over my computer screen, where we began our 3-D walkabout. It was mind-boggling. I was blown away by the technology. There wasn't anything I couldn't do on my screen that I could do better by an actual visit to the station, except I get a kick out of being in the substation.

Does this mean construction drawings, plans and profiles, and all the other paper we cherish are old school, too? Will they follow paper maps? Amazon's Kindle and its brethren are making inroads into the printed world of books, magazines and newspapers. It would not be much of a stretch to adapt them to display this virtual world, either. Our tools are changing the way we work and play. So often, today's toy is tomorrow's necessity.