Beneath the pavements we drive, bike and walk on, is a vast network of electricity, gas, water, sewer and telecommunication lines that are vital to everyday life. It’s an invisible world that most people will never see, yet it is real enough to have significant impacts on national economies.
According to Common Ground Alliance, an association of individuals and organizations in the underground utility industry, damage to buried utilities cost the United States well over $1.5B ($6B–$9B by some estimates) in 2016 alone. In Canada, those costs are calculated to be in excess of $1 billion. Often, such damage is caused by accidental hits during excavations because homeowners, contractors and others fail to obtain information on where underground assets are located before digging. That’s not the only reason, however. Increased awareness and utilization of “Call before you dig” lines mean more people are taking that precaution, but accidents still occur.
The key problem, it seems, is the state of underground utilities. As more and more utility infrastructure goes underground, identifying and accessing them has become a complex and often costly undertaking.
For municipalities and utility companies that maintain these vast networks of underground infrastructure, the combination of complexity and inaccessibility is a major headache. Faced with increasing costs as they look to update their existing utility infrastructure or develop new areas for residential and commercial use, the need for solutions that are capable of locating utility assets quickly and accurately has become a business imperative from a financial and societal standpoint.
New technology is needed
Conventional techniques rely on surface makings done through a process of interpreting printed and digital maps in conjunction with specialized equipment such as electromagnetic locator devices. The locator then paints the horizontal location of the asset on the ground, produces a sketch and compiles a report which is provided to the excavator. In some instances, this approach is inefficient and prone to errors. The result? Locators do not always deliver a full, accurate and clear picture of what lies underneath.
Bringing Augmented Reality to GIS
What has been sorely lacking in the utility locate industry is the ability to accurately visualize what lies underneath, so that locators can see an unobstructed physical world in front of them. While various technologies are being utilized to try to overcome this challenge, Augmented Reality (AR) has shown the most potential to improve process and outcomes in terms of productivity, accuracy and safety for the industry. By transforming traditional GIS data into augmented reality displays and holograms overlain on physical views of a job site, augmented reality system can enable advanced visualization through an intuitive user interface with easy setup on a variety of mobile platforms, and multiple options for delivering GIS data.
Offering an immersive experience in which computer-generated 3D images are overlaid on the real world, AR allows for a startling level of visualization. Not all AR systems are created equal, however. Despite its immense benefits, factors like accuracy, stability, hardware requirements and others still impact the real-life performance of AR-based solutions. In many respects, AR solutions fell short when it comes to providing the level of accuracy and stability that AR systems are supposed to provide.
An effective solution
In a recent study undertaken to establish the benefits of AR in the locate industry the team behind vGIS Utilities, the leading augmented reality solution for Esri GIS, has teamed up with a preeminent locate service provider Promark-Telecon.
The study found that locators saved about 30 minutes per job on average, when using vGIS. This translates into a 50 percent reduction in the time required to complete jobs. At the same time, quality assurance (QA) validation time was reduced by 66-85 percent. Cumulatively, this represents savings of between 12 and 20 hours per locator per month – a significant improvement in efficiency and productivity. In addition, 84 percent of respondents reported that vGIS made their job easier, and almost half of all participants said the AR system helped prevent an issue during the locate job.
That study was carried out in Toronto, Canada, a major metropolitan city with a diverse mix of new and aging infrastructure, well-documented and sporadically documented assets, and a variety of working environments. In other words, a municipality reflective of the conditions found in most other municipalities across North America. The significance of this is not lost on industry professionals: If it worked well in such an environment, it works.
Does this really make a difference to the industry?
With recognition from industry leaders like ESRI, the international supplier of GIS software, and Microsoft, which has recognized vGIS as an innovation partner, vGIS is set to transform the industry.
For locate technicians, the speed, safety and accuracy that comes with being able to visualize a utility’s underground infrastructure with an AR headset, phone or tablet beats walking a property with map in hand. Even among those who have used other forms of AR technology, vGIS gains a following. With its improved projection of AR overlays, vGIS offers greater stability and reliability over older systems that are highly susceptible to “drift” – that is infrastructure visuals jumping several meters every fraction of a second, disconnecting them from the physical world.
For municipalities and utility companies on the other hand, the cost savings are immense. For most jobs, vGIS calibration technology bypasses traditional high-precision GNSS that adds thousands of dollars to upfront investment in addition to potential monthly subscription fees. It enables high accuracy at no extra cost to its users, while also supporting GNSS device integration to allow each individual user the ability to choose the calibration system that works best for them. These advanced capabilities enable businesses to benefit from higher productivity, fewer errors, and a safer work environment.
Heading in the right direction
While municipalities, public and private utilities, GIS specialists and construction project managers will continue to be faced with the sheer numbers of facilities underground, the complexity associated with navigating them can be significantly reduced with the right tools. That will no doubt, go a long way towards reducing costly damage to utility lines and the resultant burdens on our national economies.