As augmented reality(AR) and virtual reality (VR) technology advances, it is leaving the realm of entertainment and being put to work in more practical ways. In the construction and maintenance industries, augmented and virtual reality are being used to improve safety and efficiency by improving the utility mapping process.

What Is Utility Mapping?

Utility mapping is the process of finding and laying out a picture of the pipes, lines, and cables below the ground at a particular site. The mapping investigation is meant to locate and identify all utilities on-site, including:

  • Electrical
  • Sewer
  • Storm drains
  • Water
  • Gas
  • Communication
  • Low-voltage
  • Out-of-order or unknown

When a utility map is combined with a topographical survey, you should have a comprehensive and detailed map of everything that exists underground and how it relates to the building or features above.

Utility maps are a vital safety precaution in both residential and commercial construction and renovation. These maps prevent workers from accidentally cutting through plumbing and electrical by digging in the wrong place. This prevents astronomical repair costs and keeps the workers on-site safe from injury.

An estimated $10 billion is spent annually in the United States on locating and mapping utility lines. Augmented reality could lower that cost significantly.

What Is Augmented Reality?

Virtual reality is a computer-generated simulation of a world or environment that you can interact with by using specialized equipment. VR headsets are an immersive virtual reality experience. Augmented reality, on the other hand, allows you to see the real world around you, but with digital augmentation laid over it.

Pokemon Go is a perfect example of augmented reality. The 2016 worldwide phenomenon allowed you to “capture” augmented reality creatures that were overlaid on your camera screen. You’d find Squirtle in a parking lot or Charizard on a walk in the park. Snapchat filters are another great example of augmented reality. Dog ears and flower crowns that appear on-screen and move with you using tracking technology are a fun application of augmented reality.

Now, consider the practical applications of augmented reality. Navigation systems that show you exactly where to turn. Software that lets you see how furniture will fit in your living room. Overlays of human anatomy that allow doctors to see “inside” their patients.

When augmented reality is used in utility mapping, it helps workers visualize underground utilities in 3D, eliminating the need for guesswork.

How Does Augmented Reality in Utility Mapping Work?

Traditionally, utility mapping is completed with equipment like penetrating radar and electromagnetic wands. When lines are found, flags and paint lines are laid down to mark them. Augmented reality, on the other hand, could show workers exactly where pipes and lines are laid through a tablet or phone screen. Just point the screen down at the ground and see where it’s safe to dig.

The only problem is that virtual reality is only as good as its coding. Meaning, there has to be information available to feed to the program, or it won’t know what to show you. A lot of GIS utility data is out-of-date or incomplete or inaccurate. So, as of now, if there is no existing information on the utilities on-site, VR won’t be able to help much.

How Does Augmented Reality Make Workers Safer?

Imagine that you are driving a bulldozer on a construction site. Aside from being incredibly cool, you are also sitting on top of several tons of metal. Now imagine that you are digging in an area near buried electrical lines that’s marked only with tiny red flags. Nerve-wracking, isn’t it?

Being able to visualize where utilities are laid more clearly means fewer accidents. And since we’re dealing with electrical and water lines, accidents can cost lives as well as money.

How Does AR and VR Make Workers More Efficient?

With AR outlines of all the utilities in the area, workers can save hours and hours of work mapping and marking utility lines on a worksite. They can also avoid costly and time-consuming mistakes, like cutting into a sewer line, that would set back the project.

In a study completed in Toronto, scientists found that using augmented reality reduced the amount of time on the job by half in over 40% of projects. Another third saw a 66% reduction in time or more! Imagine how much time you would have if you were able to cut your workday in half with one tool.

While virtual reality and augmented reality are still reliant on faulty human information, machine learning is steadily improving and filling in those gaps. As AR and VR technology improves, utility mapping will improve right alongside them.

Whether you’re embarking on a residential or commercial project call the private utility locating experts at SoftDig.

Related article: Application for 3D Underground Utility Mapping.

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