DTE Gas - Using Technology to Enable Increased Safety and...
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DTE Gas - Using Technology to Enable Increased Safety and Operational Efficiencies

By Renee Tomina, Vice President, Gas Operations, DTE Energy

Renee Tomina, Vice President, Gas Operations, DTE Energy

As a safe, reliable, and affordable supplier of natural gas for over 150 years, DTE Gas has a proud heritage of service to 1.3 million residential, commercial, and industrial end-user customers in Michigan. With more than 2,100 miles of transmission pipelines and nearly 20,000 miles of distribution mains, our primary focus is on safety – for both our customers and employees.

While we pride ourselves on our ongoing integrity programs and our adherence to strict inspection guidelines, we’re constantly looking to new technologies to help us increase the safety of our system and improve operational efficiencies.

In partnership with DTE’s Technology and Innovation Team, we’re working to implement two new technologies into our day-to-day operations to help us meet our goals.

Virtual Reality

Workforce training

Our teams are exploring how virtual reality (VR) can change the way we work and operate, particularly in our training programs.

According to studies conducted at the National Training Laboratories, retention of information from traditional learning techniques such as lectures and reading ranges from just 5 to 20 percent. When an employee watches a demonstration of the technique, retention may increase to 30 percent. It’s the hands-on application that really helps employees learn and increases retention to about 75 percent. But what really stays with an employee is when they’ve had the opportunity to make a mistake – it increases their retention to 90 percent!

We’re experimenting with how we can use VR applications as an extension of our classroom environment to help train our gas technicians in various experiences – everything from inspecting, moving and installing meters to relighting appliances. This type of training gives our employees additional opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom, allowing them to continue to learn independently and potentially make mistakes in a virtual environment, versus in the real world, where a small mistake could have catastrophic implications.

Virtual reality also provides the ability to combine numerous scenarios into one application for ease of scale across the enterprise, enabling both consistency and availability of training for more of our workforce.

Construction planning

Another scenario where VR can help our operations is in the way we document current field conditions for planning. By documenting conditions in the field with 360-degree cameras, imagery can be uploaded into a virtual environment for a supervisor or program manager to review. 

"Virtual reality provides the ability to combine numerous scenarios into one application for ease of scale across the enterprise, enabling both consistency and availability of training for more of our workforce"

We can use the VR environment to stand on a specific street corner and scan potential hazards like telephone poles, manhole covers, and even trees. We can also take measurements from point to point to help us estimate material requirements for new projects.

Solutions can be crafted in the virtual environment and then sent back to the workers in the field. This process provides higher accuracy of data for review and increases efficiencies for program implementation.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Technology

DTE Energy has been using UAS technology in the form of drones throughout the enterprise, which has allowed the company to realize increased cost savings, more efficient and comprehensive data collection, and most importantly, increased safety for our employees.

Our approximately 2,100 miles of gas transmission lines are slow to inspect by foot – four miles per day. To help increase our efficiencies, we moved from on-foot inspections to aerial inspections to help ensure the safety and security of our gas lines, and we’re now covering 200 miles per day via helicopter. We’re in the process of implementing drone inspections, which will not only allow us to deploy visual inspections as needed rapidly but also increase our efficiency and reduce costs – with the same quality and detection.

Technologies like VR and UAS have opened up opportunities that will continue to evolve the way we, and others in the utility industry, do business.

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