Augmented reality is changing field service management

AR is changing how service techs operate, and how organizations respond to customers

field service management
  • Field service technicians must maintain and repair complex equipment without making as many on-site visits
  • AR software and hardware allow techs to work remotely, sometimes by guiding customers to make complex repairs
  • The pandemic has accelerated AR adoption in workflows and team dispatching

Even in normal times, no one tolerates major interruptions to home internet and cable services. During a pandemic, those outages can quickly become a crisis.

At Verizon, more than 10,000 field technicians are accustomed to making house calls when problems arise. When COVID-19 arrived, they had to find new ways of offering personalized service in cases where they couldn’t or shouldn’t enter people’s homes. The company fortified its technicians’ tool belts with software that uses augmented reality (AR) technology and artificial intelligence to manage contactless repairs and customer service.

In some cases, the AR software allows service techs to manage entire repairs remotely. For issues that still require a house call, technicians guide customers through fixes in real time. Customers click into a mobile app to connect with the service tech, then use their cameras to stream images or video of the affected device, such as an out-of-service router. When verbal instructions aren’t sufficient, technicians can employ on-screen features like arrows, circles, and text.

“Customers are happy to have a real person to talk to, to help solve their issue,” says Jimmy David, a Verizon facilities technician. Equally important for Verizon, technicians are resolving 90% of customer issues when using the new virtual assistant.

An estimated 20 million field service workers in the U.S. maintain and repair industrial and consumer equipment and systems, from HVAC units in office buildings to home routers and cable boxes. But the COVID-19 pandemic, stretching into its second year, has accelerated the move to AR-enabled digital tools that allow technicians to conduct field services remotely.

By 2025, more than half of all field service jobs will include mobile AR and other advanced digital tools, compared with less than 10% in 2019, according to Gartner research. The annual market for field service management software is expected to more than double between 2020 and 2027, a 2020 Research and Markets forecast suggests.

[Read also: Digital transformation in the field]

With AR displays on smartphones or goggles, technicians can do virtual inspections before on-site visits, ensuring that they arrive with the right equipment or tools. Once techs arrive on site, AR devices can prove valuable to fixing systems or equipment. Picture a technician atop a 200-foot ladder, servicing a wind turbine’s housing. With hands already occupied, he or she can now call up specs or a manufacturer’s guide using an industrial version of Google Glass.

Since all businesses must adhere to COVID-19 restrictions, AR field service tools are meeting the needs of the moment. During the initial shelter-in-place lockdowns, more than three-quarters of field service organizations halted on-site visits. Fortunately, a similar percentage (73%) of field service groups were already experienced in using IoT technologies for remote diagnosis and maintenance to help fill critical service gaps.

Rethinking remote service

Even before the pandemic, AR applications in the field service sector were changing how technicians completed jobs. Porsche, for example, introduced in 2019 an AR system for diagnostics in its car dealerships that shortened service resolution times by as much as 40%, according to Deloitte.

Hands-free AR headsets equipped with computer vision, a form of AI applied to imaging, are also helping technicians reduce errors in heavy-industry jobs, such as inspecting jet engines for signs of wear that are invisible to the human eye.

20 million

field service workers in the U.S. maintain and repair industrial and consumer equipment and systems

AR is working its way into field service in other ways. Aviation-maintenance firm Robotic Skies viewed the pandemic as an opportunity to add more digital tools into the workflows of its specialized technicians. Their service teams repair and maintain fleets of unmanned aerial systems (UAS)—large, commercial-grade drones used for aerial photography, inspection of power lines, and environmental monitoring.

Before the pandemic, most UAS manufacturers wanted Robotic Skies technicians to travel to their factories, to learn the ins and outs of their drones, before the technicians were dispatched to Robotic Skies’ network of maintenance centers, where the equipment would be serviced. Customers largely balked at training technicians remotely.

Now Robotic Skies technicians are trained on Google Glass—a product that found a ready enterprise market after flopping with consumers—loaded with AR software developed by Upskill, a Washington, D.C.–based AR software developer. With AR, a technician and remote mechanic, each wearing a Google Glass headset, can work together to repair equipment or develop maintenance plans, says Brad Hayden, founder and CEO of Robotic Skies.

With the ability to collaborate remotely, technicians can spend less time traveling to training sites and more time performing key service tasks. “This has certainly opened up our eyes to what the possibilities are, as well as our customers’ eyes as to how this can work,” Hayden says. “Everybody’s very much used to not only meeting online but also developing relationships online. It’s been an overall paradigm shift.”