Making Augmented Reality a reality for public works

The future is already here for public works with the use of Augmented Reality (AR). AR utilizes computer technology to overlay digital information on an image of something captured and viewed through a device.

Making Augmented Reality a reality for public works
Making Augmented Reality a reality for public works

Making Augmented Reality a reality for public works

I magine a future where an engineer can readily see information on the type, age, and install date overlaid on a sign just by scanning a code, where an architect can visually depict their structural improvement on a building site before construction begins, or where a maintenance worker at a local public works agency can locate and determine the condition of a water main in the ground before digging, just by looking at the ground.

That future is already here for public works with the use of Augmented Reality (AR). AR utilizes computer technology to overlay digital information on an image of something captured and viewed through a device. In other words, AR is used to combine real and virtual objects, in a real environment (Erkoyuncu, Palmarini, Toramostaedi, & Roy, 2018). Unlike Virtual Reality (VR), AR does not create an entirely artificial, immersive, virtual environment, but rather adds layers of visual data projections over our vision of the real world.

Augmented Reality has been creeping into everyday use over the past several years. AR has already been applied and is prevalent in many fields such as tourism, entertainment, design and development, real estate, marketing, medical surgery, logistics, manufacturing, maintenance, and more. During election years, news channels populate TV screens with AR graphics of maps or red/blue polls that wiz around in front of the newscaster, giving the public a fresh, exciting way to experience political data analytics. In sports broadcasting, AR has been used to display the first-down line on a football field or show the travel path of a golf ball. After being tested and utilized in many other functions, AR is now prime to enter the public works arena.

How can AR Work for Public Works?

A large-scale implementation of AR for an entire agency, even for a single asset type, requires substantial time, money, and expertise. As the technology improves, so will the need for infrastructure, maintenance, and support.

Currently, AR is often projected using expensive devices, but has become more available through mobile phone applications and may become much more widespread in the future for predictive analysis of public works assets.

For public agencies wishing to make AR a reality, there are several constraints that should be considered and parameters that must be met before implementation can begin and the benefits of AR can be realized.

First, the intended purpose and process for the AR application must be identified, such as locating underground water lines, or reviewing reinforced steel in a concrete structure.

A process with the potential to fully utilize the AR capabilities should be selected and prioritized for implementation. Prioritizing by activity will allow phased implementation for a smooth transition.

Once the intended use of AR is identified, the needed data detail and accuracy of the assets must be identified by the agency. In the case of underground water line maintenance, this would be the location and size of the underground lines. It is also important to determine the required accuracy of the data. Verifying the accuracy of asset location and dimensional data could be critical to the success of the AR implementation, as well as actual use for rehabilitation and maintenance planning. Many agencies still record asset and inventory data manually, whereas data for AR must be stored digitally in a computerized maintenance asset management database and/or geographic information system (GIS) to be pulled into the AR application. A process, with dedicated resources, must be implemented to manage the data in accurate detail in the software system to allow for utilization.

For example, if the condition of a sewer line shows a deficiency, such as calcite accumulation, the line would need to be accurately recorded and depicted in the system to use as guidance for proper maintenance planning for line cleaning.

The agency should then compare their needed asset data and accuracy with any existing sources they may already have. The comparison should trigger the collection and update of asset data to store in a geospatial database.

This may involve allocating resources to review CAD as-built files, conduct field confirmation, and input information into the database. The validity of the geospatial data captured should be checked and confirmed. AR software should also be compatible with the geospatial (GIS) data to display the associated information as an augmented picture to the user.

Determining the infrastructure and network needed for the link between AR system and spatial data is central to the effectiveness of the system. AR can operate through a multitude of devices, from Microsoft’s HoloLens, manufactured specifically for the purpose of mixed reality, to smart tablets and phones. The best device depends on the agency’s activity receiving the AR implementation. This AR device has to be linked to the GIS database, whether through Wi-Fi or cellular service.

The municipality must understand the geographical limitations that exist, and other issues that might present challenges to the linkage of the AR system, or the hardware and infrastructure required to complete that linkage. If crews are using devices in areas where there is limited cellular service or no Wi-Fi, the use of AR may not be practical.

Further, safety protocol must be developed for using AR devices. Given that AR superimposes layers of information over reality, it has the potential to disrupt the user’s real-world vision and limit the ability to detect hazards such as traffic or landscape features.

Therefore, precaution must be taken to ensure the safety of users, such as placing traffic barriers around the area being evaluated or requiring users to be aware of their environment.

Finally, an AR champion(s) may be the most important factor, as the need to lead the agency in the implementation is paramount. The champion/leader should be at a level in the organization to be able to provide fiscal and labor resources to help implement, train, and maintain system implementation for the employees. For successful implementation and longevity, they should guide the users to grow along with this continuously developing technology.

Regular and proper training on how and when to use the AR system safely will advance the effectiveness of the system and the improvement of the system’s targeted use. As the technology progresses, employees will need to update their knowledge and review the capabilities to obtain the result of AR’s continuous improvement. The champion must ensure this happens to embed change within the organization’s culture.

Real Applications of AR in Public Works

Companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon have been major drivers of AR. Their success is due in part to the large inventory of data collected from their many enterprises and subscribed users. Their associated AR devices and applications can pull this data and superimpose information onto the device display for the user.

Similarly, many public works departments have a large recorded inventory of government asset data, including roads and bridges, streetlights, fire hydrants, manholes, vast airports, miles of underground utilities, and numerous pump stations. Assets come in many types, sizes, and with varied operational and interconnected relationships, requiring different levels of maintenance and coordination. These differences add myriad complexities to operations and maintenance, in addition to data collection efforts.

Governmental agencies are beginning to see the benefits of AR technology first-hand. For example, Toms River Municipal Utilities Authority (TRMUA) in Toms River, New Jersey (pop. 92,000), began by documenting their assets to three-foot accuracy scale in GIS (Meehan, 2017). The TRMUA then implemented a customized AR system, possibly the first of its kind, by combining three existing technologies: Esri’s GIS, which stores location and attribute information on TRMUA’s underground assets; Microsoft Azure (a cloud-computing service); and Microsoft HoloLens, an AR viewing device.

This combination of commercially existing technologies has unlocked massive potential for savings, increased efficiency, job safety, and improved team collaboration towards onsite problem solving.

Weighing the Costs and Benefits of AR Technology

While AR technology is relatively new and has not yet been utilized extensively by public agencies, it is important to ensure the safety of users and security of sensitive data, which is still being designed and tested. Safety and the potential manipulation of perceived reality can be a persistent threat. It is also relatively expensive to purchase the related devices, software, and implement new processes, as well as provide consistent connections and manage databases. The AR technology will undoubtedly change rapidly, presenting additional costs for system updates and maintenance in the near future. In addition, AR location will not work effectively with poor phone, GPS, and compass accuracy, which makes it difficult to ensure that objects are properly depicted geospatially (Dormehl, 2018).

However, AR has the potential to provide considerable benefits by reducing some of the constraints related to time and cost for activities performed by public works. “Public works employees can identify potential hazards at worksites and view relevant repair info, like where a water pipe is located in proximity to other infrastructure. Rather than expending precious time calling up data, workers will simply encounter information in the course of their regular activities” (Goldsmith & Bousquet, 2018). Work can be more specifically directed to the accurate location. Workers in the field can also share what they are seeing with employees in an office and quickly find solutions or more data, thus reducing impacts to the public and the length and cost of repairs and maintenance.

Other major benefits of the technology include the institutionalization of agency work and the collection of asset inventory and condition data to help prioritize work activities and investments. A growing concern is the rapidly retiring workforce, and the industry knowledge that those retirees take with them. The advantage of the next generation workforce is their ease in learning and using the latest technology, like AR. By recording agency knowledge into a spatial and visual database, public works can give the new workforce the knowledge they need, on-demand, in real time, to make better decisions in the field. For example, when a worker responds to an issue with a pump, using AR, they can quickly see overlay data pertaining to the asset type, product number, maintenance history, current condition and so forth, to expedite their understanding of potential problems with the pump and/or expedite the ordering of needed parts.

Summary

Augmented Reality is a revolutionary tool that can help further transform the public works industry for the 21st Century. There are many practical applications of AR, such as real-time sharing of data and locating hidden infrastructure at a reduced cost. While there is much excitement and potential around AR technology, agencies must be prepared to handle the rapid technological changes, fiscal impact of hardware and software, safety implications, substantial data storage, and continuous employee training. By recognizing and preparing for these conditions, agency leaders can become champions of this growing technology and lead their agency into a more efficient and robust future.