Virtual reality allows workers to ‘see’ below the surface

The latest advances in satellite-based GPS technology, combined with virtual reality techniques, will allow workers on site to ‘see’ below the surface of the ground.

Every British motorist will be familiar with the frustration of waiting at temporary traffic signals while workmen dig a series of apparently illogical holes — an agony often prolonged when one of them accidentally hits a hidden gas or water main.

Soon, these mistakes could be a thing of the past, thanks to new virtual reality technology being developed as part of a collaboration between engineers at The University of Nottingham’s School of Chemical Environmental and Mining Engineering (SChEME) and Institute of Engineering Surveying and Space Geodesy (IESSG).

The project will use the latest advances in satellite-based GPS technology, combined with virtual reality techniques, to produce equipment allowing workers on site to ‘see’ below the surface of the ground.

The University is working on the project with the British Geological Survey, which will be carrying out practical testing of the new technology out in the field.

The total cost of the project is estimated at £650,000. It is being funded by a grant from the Department of Trade and Industry’s Foresight LINK award.

The technology, called Augmented Reality (AR), will use information stored in computers about what lies beneath the surface to overlay a graphic of this on to what the person is actually seeing. It will allow the person to see where a whole host of features are positioned, from water pipes to electricity cables, even areas of contaminated land.

Utilities companies such as water suppliers, will be able to use the information they have about their network of pipes and plan maintenance works more effectively. In the case of electricity cables and gas mains, being able to ‘see’ where they are could even save lives.

Head of SChEME and principal investigator Professor Bryan Denby said: ‘The technology won’t actually let us see through the ground — it is not x-ray vision — but we can take information stored by companies on computer and make it work for us out on site.’

The University’s AIMS research unit has been developing the computer technology behind the project. They anticipate workers will carry small, portable computers when they go out on site and use special semi-transparent glasses on which the graphics will appear, allowing them to see the image and the real world simultaneously.

The use of satellite technology in the project is being developed by the Institute of Engineering Surveying and Space Geodesy to allow users of the new Augmented Reality equipment to get their bearings when on site.

The GPS satellite equipment will be able to plot a person’s position on the site and tell them in which direction they are facing to ensure they are in the correct position before they begin using the Augmented Reality technology.

Dr Gethin Roberts, co-investigator and lecturer at the IESSG, said: ‘It is no use having this state-of-the-art Augmented Reality technology if the person on site doesn’t know where they are. The satellite technology will be so good we will be able to tell them where they are standing to the nearest centimetre.’

The engineers are hoping that once they have finished developing the prototype for the technology the design can be sold on to industry and adapted for a whole host of uses, such as in the mining industry or for archaeological digs.

The eight commercial companies involved in the project are Leica Geosystems Ltd, Pipeline Integrity International Ltd, Rio Tinto Technology Development Ltd, United Kingdom Nirex Ltd, Minerals Industry Research Organisation, KRJA Systems Ltd, Land Quality Management Ltd and Newham Environmental Health.

Useful web links are Foresight LINK awards at www.dti.gov.uk/ost/link/award.html, School of Chemical Environmental and Mining Engineering at www.nottingham.ac.uk/schemeand Institute of Engineering Surveying and Space Geodesy at www.nottingham.ac.uk/iessg