Esri Utility Network—You’ve Come a Long Way

My granddaughter, Gloria, interviewed me for a school project. One of her questions was, “Where were you when you asked your wife [her grandmother] out for your first date?” I, of course, remember it like it was yesterday. I answered, “It was in a phone booth in Harvard Square in Cambridge.” She looked at me quizzically and asked, “What’s a phone booth, Pop?” Her phone was tucked away in her back pocket.

Funny how fast things disappear from our collective memory.

When I first worked for a power company, one of my projects was to fix the many issues with the mapping department. Back then, everything was manual: the drafting, the reproduction, and the distribution of prints of the ancient paper maps. Those old things were notoriously out-of-date. The field offices had stacks of map sheets that needed to be filed. Most of the field supervisors kept their own sets of marked-up map prints. It was a mess.

I saw that automation was the answer. So I implemented an AM/FM system. Remember that term? I can imagine my granddaughter quizzing me, “What’s an AM/FM system, Pop?” Back then, utilities converted their old map sheets to a digital system called automated mapping/facilities management, or AM/FM. You would think they (whoever “they” were at the time) could have come up with a better term—sounded more like a radio system than a mapping system. Anyway, the idea was to automate the way the old operating maps were drafted. By automating the process, the drafting people could speed up production. The hope was to improve map production and accuracy. And, sure, it did that to some extent.

What it didn’t do was change the way utilities used the maps or, more importantly, the information on them.

What didn’t these old AM/FM systems (which were basically GIS) do? They didn’t focus on giving all employees, contractors, and even the public access to the critical operational information that was buried in those old maps. Those systems weren’t built to provide situational awareness. They couldn’t combine the facilities data with sensor, weather, traffic, social media, and demographic data. They certainly never provided analytics. There was no insight into why things happen the way they do. They didn’t do what the ArcGIS platform does today.

The old AM/FM systems provided a convenient (yawn) way to document the network. They provided digital data to a small group of people.

Sure, the ArcGIS platform today creates beautiful and operational maps too. But more than that, it provides full access, situational awareness, and analytics. However, there is one part of the platform that needed to finally shed the legacy of the old AM/FM systems. In addition to the access, situational awareness, and analytics, the platform needed to create a rich, scalable, and comprehensive model of the utility network—not just what the networks looked like on the old maps. That model needed to go beyond the simple connectivity and placement model.

Why? To better support—no, maybe even transform the utility business. The model needs to be fully aligned with the IT and OT (operational technology) parts of the business. You know, all those systems with those acronyms—EMS, DMS, OMS, SCADA, AMI, IoT. It needs to support those buzzword concepts like smart grid, geoanalytics, big data, and geofencing. The demands on GIS have grown. GIS is the technology that enables the full potential of energy management systems (EMS), distribution management systems (DMS—sometimes called advanced distribution management systems), outage management systems (OMS), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and many more.

Underlying the beautiful maps, the platform needs to create more intelligence. That’s why Esri will be releasing a brand-new network model included as part of the platform at the end of this year. We call this feature Utility Network. It includes such modeling network capability as structural attachments and liner containment (things inside other things—like fiber-optic strands in a cable or cables in conduits). It has advanced connectivity in which users can decide whether things connect to each other based on collocation, or users specify to connect this pipe to that pipe. Utility Network models electrical equipment terminals and also honors 3D. It automatically creates one-line diagrams or schematics of any portion of the network. It also has all kinds of editing capability and so much more. While this new feature is called Utility Network, the term utility is really being used generically in that Utility Network can model literally any kind of network: gas, water, electric, communication, district heating—you name it. The first release will even include data models for gas, water, and electric. It will have tools for users to build brand-new network data models for things we haven’t even thought of yet.

The most exciting functionality of Utility Network is that it is completely cross-platform capable. That means it is not confined to users of desktop GIS. It will be available across all supported platforms. It will be completely services based, including editing. For its introductory release at the end of the year, the first supported client will be Esri’s ArcGIS Pro.

So GIS has come a long way. The old AM/FM systems were built primarily to speed up the process of producing paper maps and had very little modeling capability. Today, the ArcGIS platform provides access to everyone, on any device, anywhere. With the new Utility Network, users will now have comprehensive network modeling capability across the entire platform.

So if my granddaughter were to ask me what an AM/FM system is, my answer would probably be, “You know, I don’t even remember.”

Bill Meehan

About Bill Meehan

Bill Meehan, P.E., heads the worldwide utility industry solutions practice for Esri. Author of Enhancing Electric Utility Performance with GIS, Modeling Electric Distribution Performance with GIS, Empowering Electric and Gas Utilities, Power System Analysis by Digital Computer, and numerous papers and articles, Bill has lectured extensively and taught courses at Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts. Bill is a registered professional engineer. Follow Bill on Twitter.
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  1. wfrerichs says:

    Had AM/FM been a 3 letter acronym it may still be in use today. This new Utility Network will definitely change some GIS landscapes including ours.