Understanding the underground asset landscape with augmented reality

While most people today have a basic awareness of what augmented reality (AR) is, there’s a number of misconceptions about how widely the technology can be used.

With applications in gaming, industrial design, construction, education and in the medical world, there’s virtually no limit to the ways in which AR technology can be used.

One of the most interesting applications of AR is currently being seen in the field of underground asset management.

A growing number of utilities, contractors, councils and asset owners around the world are adopting the augmented reality GIS solution, Augview, for a variety of spatial positioning functions.

This software collates spatial information from various databases and allows users to view buried infrastructure and additional data in their real spatial positions via an augmented reality overlay on the screen of a tablet or smartphone.

The potential benefits are numerous, particularly from a health and safety perspective. Considering the implications of asset strikes only serves to highlight this point.

Christchurch gas strike

In October 2014, residents were evacuated, businesses were shut down and traffic was diverted as a result of a gas pipe strike in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The incident occurred when a digging contractor working on the site hit the T-joint on the saddle of a buried gas pipeline. While the gas pipeline itself was recorded on the maps the contractor was using to determine buried asset locations, the T-joint jutting out of it was not displayed.

This resulted in the major leak that held up about 10,000 drivers, halted train services and forced the evacuation of schools and workplaces up to 500 metres away from the scene.

Had the contractor been able to see a 3D representation of the T-joint in its real position in relation to the pipe, this incident could have been avoided.

For utilities across the world, asset strikes like this one are a weekly, if not daily, occurrence.

The potential dangers of accidental utility contact are serious – they can result in injuries or even death to contractors, field staff and anyone in the vicinity. The economic costs of asset and equipment damage, project delays, staff evacuations and traffic diversions stretch into the hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

The solution

Introducing an augmented reality GIS application into the ‘before you dig’ process has the potential to drastically reduce the number of asset strikes occurring around the world.

Augview allows users to tap into the benefits of a mobile GIS system and visualise underground assets on a mobile device, such as a tablet or smartphone. The locations of assets from different owners, and additional information about them, can be viewed on a single display in map view or as an AR overlay. In augmented reality mode, the underground assets are transposed over their actual locations on a live feed from the device’s camera.

This allows the true locations of assets, both in space and in relation to one another, to be effectively visualised. For example, multiple pipelines buried on top of one another will be displayed as such, while on a map they would have to be depicted next to one another.

Augview provides one simple, easy to use tool from which to visualise the underground asset landscape. Unlike the current methods, which require workers to refer to hard copy maps to locate assets, Augview takes the guesswork out of the situation by positioning assets where they should be – using GPS coordinates as the reference.

It’s a simple, user-friendly and quick means of asset positioning, leaving workers with more time to get on with the job – in a considerably safer environment.

Continuously evolving

Thanks to a dedicated team of developers, Augview is continuously evolving.

Currently, the team are working on a version of Augview to work with Meta 1 augmented reality glasses, generally considered to be the most advanced AR eyewear to date.

With Augview on AR glasses, construction workers could view and interact with Augview’s data in the field, leaving their hands free to complete other tasks. Any updates and safety notifications will be seen instantly, rather than whenever someone next happens to look at their mobile device.

Using AR glasses, users could also use Augview while easily communicating through the embedded microphone and speakers. 

Meanwhile, the AR asset positioning technology of the future is still ready and waiting for use on handheld mobile devices today.

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