‘Augmented Reality’ Peers Below The Surface: Technology Could Revolutionize Underground Engineering, Design, Construction

By Jeff Griffin, Senior Editor | October 2013, Vol. 68 No. 10

Imagine a construction project in a well-developed part of a city where a directional drilling crew is preparing to install a section of gas pipe in an easement that already contains multiple utilities.

The foreman holds a tablet computer, looking at the screen which displays a real-time view of the work site as it is at that instant – streets, sidewalks, landscaping, trees and buildings as seen by the tablet’s built-in camera.

But wait, look closer.

Not only does the image on the screen show the live scene, it clearly depicts what is beneath the ground with images of color-coded pipes and cables, ducts, manholes – and showing their precise locations in relation to the real-time picture of the surface.

At a time when most utility locates are made by handheld electromagnetic tools and marked on the surface with small colored flags and spray paint, the scene just described might be considered a preview of the future.

Actually, technologies are in place to do exactly what was described and indeed, they have been successfully used on several projects.

Clearly it will be a while before combined surface/subsurface images are commonplace, but there are those in the industry who believe ultimately these technologies will change the way underground utility projects are approached.

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Mark Wallbom is among those certain this will happen, perhaps sooner than many expect.

“Combining real-time video images with previously-mapped subsurface features is accomplished with augmented reality, also known as enhanced reality,” said Wallbom, chief executive officer of Underground Imaging Technologies, a geophysical services company that specializes in three-dimensional imaging of the subsurface to accurately map underground utilities and other objects prior to excavation.

“Augmented reality has become a popular topic for discussion,” Wallbom continued. “But it’s actually not new and most of us have experienced it without realizing it. On televised football games, the yellow and blue lines representing the line of scrimmage and first down marker, are superimposed over the actual view of the football field seen through the TV camera and ‘augmented’ to the picture to add helpful reference points.”

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Wallbom explains how the technology works on a construction site.