A new system developed in the UK lets workers scan a site through a video imager and "see" pipelines and underground utilities superimposed on real-time pictures of the terrain.

The "augmented reality" technology developed at the University of Nottingham, in Nottingham, England, overlays images of buried features on live video of a site as the viewer looks it over. The viewing device is linked to a Global Positioning System to orient the observer to previously collected data on underground utility locations. The system generates and merges 3D representations of underground features with the real-time video view.

(Photo courtesy of Nottingham University)

"You actually see the water pipe exactly where it is," says Mike Turner, asset record manager at Yorkshire Water Services Ltd., Leeds, after a recent demonstration.

When viewing surface features, the computer’s underground image and reality coincide "within a couple of centimeters," Turner says. Accuracy deteriorates with distance, but is good enough close up for excavation, he adds.

High-quality geospatial data is needed, and Turner is well supplied. His utility digitized its network of over 60,000 km of pipes and sewers during the 1990s. Just confirming the accuracy with a physical audit was a three-year, $15-million project, he says. Turner predicts augmented reality will eliminate the need for crews to interpret 2D images on paper or laptop screens, but adds, "It’s very early in the day for the technology."

Development coordinator Bryan Denby, a professor in Nottingham’s School of Chemical, Environmental and Mining Engineering, says operational kits can already be supplied for individual applications. With backing, the system could be on the market within a year, he believes. Industrial sponsors, matched by government grants, have contributed nearly $1 million toward development costs.