Understanding the underground asset landscape with augmented reality

Author: Michelle Goldsmith, technology journalist

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.

For instance, 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.

Augmented reality enables representations of underground assets to be transposed over their actual locations on a live feed from a mobile 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 can be displayed as such, while on a map they would have to be depicted next to one another.

Augmented reality GIS solutions can do more than just show an asset’s position. With an augmented reality GIS solution such as Augview, the locations of assets from different owners, and additional information about them (which can include warnings, asset age and status, or even geotagged images), can be viewed on a single display in map view or as an AR overlay.

Unlike the current methods, which require workers to refer to hard copy maps to locate assets, augmented reality can reduce guesswork 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

Augmented reality technology is a quickly evolving field and a number of advances in technology have real potential to further improve the functionality of AR GIS solutions.

For instance, while AR solutions are currently being used primarily on mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets, AR glasses promise the next leap forward.

With AR glasses, construction workers could view and interact with 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 the software while easily communicating through the embedded microphone and speakers.

The significant potential safety, economic and productivity benefits make the use of augmented reality solutions in visualising and managing underground assets one of the most exciting applications of AR to date. AR GIS solutions are already available for use and are constantly improving and refining; the asset management solution of the future is here today.

Michelle Goldsmith is a freelance technology journalist who specialises in energy and infrastructure.

This article is brought to you by the content directors for CSO Australia.

Tags New ZealandchristchurchCSO Australiatechnology journalistGIS solutionasset landscapesecurity planningAR technologymisconceptionsAugview

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