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Published 30 January 2013 17:23, Updated 26 November 2013 18:35
Ergon Energy is using smarter mapping to cut the cost of maintaining its 150,000km pole network. Photo: Glenn Hunt
Tracking the growth of trees doesn’t seem an obvious way for a big power company to save money but Queensland’s Ergon Energy estimates it may save nearly $60 million over five years by increasing its use of Google Maps to handle information once stored inside its enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.
The electricity company is one of a growing number of organisations putting mapping technology, and Google Maps in particular, at the heart of their business practice.
Ergon is using a paid product called Google Maps Engine to map its entire network of 150,000km of poles and wires across Queensland, from towns and cities to remote corners of the state.
The group general manager in charge of the project at Ergon Energy, James Bangay, says the company spent $94 million on dealing with risky vegetation in the last financial year and could save $59 million over the next five years.
“We save money by doing the right work at the right time and not performing unnecessary work,” Bangay says. “Better information about the way trees are growing leads to better decisions about when to respond to vegetation and keep the network safe.”
Ergon started using earlier versions of Google Maps in 2006 but late last year it went live with its most ambitious map project. Called Roames, it uses light planes and helicopters to map the entire network each year.
The mapping is done in collaboration with the Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information. Previously the network was mapped only every three years.
The sensors on the aircraft capture images to centimetre level and Ergon is using the data to generate 3D models of vegetation growth to guide its pruning program.
Efficiency gains come both from better information and also the fact that Ergon staff find the visual presentation of information more intuitive.
Back when the ERP system was in use, staff in essence were searching a giant spreadsheet using fields such as pole number or street address. Now when they log on, they see a map of Queensland with any hot spots highlighted.
Zooming in on problems, the map seamlessly integrates with Google Earth, Street View and the high-resolution data captured by the Roames project so they can see detail of the tree and power lines.
The company has about 2,000 staff using Google Maps, as well as contractors. Bangay says the employees mostly use it on a laptop in the field but can also use personal devices. Some of the contractors use tablets and smart phones and Bangay says it is a relief that Google Maps is now back on the iPhone. “[The removal] was a disappointing, proprietary decision,” he says.
Other electricity companies, such as CitiPower in Victoria, also use Google Maps to map their networks, though not in conjunction with the vast Roames data collection project. All power companies have a distributed network but the problem is exaggerated with Ergon covering 97 per cent of the state of Queensland.
“We go within about 500 metres of the Papua New Guinea coast line, out to the Northern Territory border and down to the Birdsville area and urban areas as well with about 600 towns and cities,” Bangay says.
“The network treats it all as one machine, which we think makes it the largest distributed machine run by humans in the world.”
When Ergon first started using Google Maps seven years ago, the company did not consider any other technology options.
“It’s the most downloaded program in the world,” Bangay says. “The whole point was that all our staff were already using Google Maps and liked it, so we didn’t have to train them in a whole new system.”
A vice-president and fellow at analyst firm Gartner, Kristian Steenstrup, says this illustrates how the dominance of Google Maps for consumers has helped it win market share in the enterprise market.
Google has been the biggest beneficiary of the rise of mapping software based on an open-source API (application programming interface), which Gartner estimates will account for 50 per cent of the market by 2015. However, Steenstrup says the new breed of mapping software has not displaced traditional GIS (geographic information system) providers such as Esri, GE Small World, Intergraph and Bentley, which are still dominant in the engineering and construction sectors, because the overall market has grown.
“The open APIs mean you can take stuff out and add stuff in and extend it, not just use what comes out of the box,” Steenstrup says. “The GIS systems are very capable in what they do but you use them as they’re designed and delivered, whereas with Google Maps you can do anything you want and people frequently do.”
The vice president of geo-engineering at Google, Brian McClendon, says there has been strong uptake from business customers for Google’s enterprise mapping products. McClendon is Google’s most senior mapping executive and the co-founder of Keyhole, which was acquired by Google eight years ago and became the basis for Google Earth.
“We’ve seen some big customers like Ergon really coming up with some unique applications, which were things they wanted to do but weren’t able to handle the amount of data they wanted to create and then serve it to all the users they wanted to show it to,” McClendon says.
Google also offers a tool called Maps Coordinate, which lets a company manage a mobile workforce and assign tasks to the nearest team member.
Some companies incorporate Google Maps into their customer offering. For example, automobile manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Tesla have licensed Google Maps and Google Places for their in-car navigation system.
Meanwhile, thousands of web developers make use of the open API, used by 900,000 websites around the world and largely developed out of Google’s Sydney office. For example, Australian travel website GetFlight lets travellers visualise where they could go within a certain price and date range, even if they don’t have a particular destination in mind. The founder and CEO, Ian Cummings, says his business “would not be possible” without the Google Maps API.
He says a key part of the future of mapping will be integration with other forms of information, such as weather forecasts or traffic reports and the expansion of StreetView into buildings.
Another example may be a retailer using Google Maps Engine to map its store locations and overlay it with the public transport network, customer information and store data to help with planning.
Even for companies such as Ergon with huge mapping projects already under way, it seems clear the journey is just beginning.