Picture a large construction site with backhoes ready to dig. Are there underground pipes or cables that might be damaged? Standard procedures require a thorough review of existing records of underground infrastructure, and magnetic wands are used to locate underground assets manually. This process takes extra time and money; however, the alternative is unintentional damage that could cause outages for thousands of people and cost tens of thousands of dollars to repair.

A viable alternative allows users to “see” underground with augmented reality (AR) combined with layers of GIS data. Although not yet widespread, new applications for AR are rapidly being developed. In addition to underground viewing, above-ground visualizations of built environments and urban plans can be extremely intuitive and useful.

Synergy of GIS and Augmented Reality   

AR is an evolving reality technology. There are several variations of reality technologies, which overall are referred to as XR. There is mixed reality—a term coined by Microsoft for its HoloLens wearable device that allows the user to view holograms along with the real world. There is augmented reality—viewing the actual world through a camera enhanced with data on a handheld device. And there is virtual reality—typically in a game form where everything is simulated. 

The connection between AR and GIS reflects another level of development for geospatial data. GIS, in its infancy, was all about adding data to a paper map; however, a 2D representation of a 3D world is inherently inaccurate. This stage was followed by computer-generated maps and the addition of GIS data layers with improved accuracy, which provided the opportunity to do many types of analysis. To further improve accuracy and utility, the industry pushed into the 3D computing world with x,y,z positioning added to the GIS. 

The 3D world is where we live, so the ability to visualize GIS data on top of the real world is a breakthrough. Designing new structures, updating existing address data or analyzing changes in green space is done at a desk. But in the field, access to this information is incredibly valuable to help users visualize what is really happening. Argis Solutions, LLC is the creator of one AR technology that allows users to layer chosen data or digital elements on top of a real-world, real-time view of the actual surroundings. The start-up firm holds a patent on converting GIS data into AR data and is an Esri Partner.

“By accurately seeing underground infrastructure and proposed changes aboveground, field technicians and specialists are empowered to do a better job,” says Brady Hustad, founder of Argis Solutions, LLC. “Getting data to where it is needed adds value, such as revealing 3D relationships between assets, improving situational awareness and increasing productivity. AR is helping to make GIS data more useful, so it can be used by the enterprise, not just a department. Someday people won’t think about GIS as a separate tool, because everything has a ‘where’ factor.”

AR is made possible by advances in mobile devices that now contain magnetometers, accelerometers, gyros, GPS, cameras and high-quality displays. This extra information makes AR accessible to a broader GIS community, especially since the Argis Lens is closely integrated with ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS Enterprise. Mobile devices are now able to attain 2½- to 5-m accuracy, while the addition of external GPS improves that to sub-foot accuracy.

A Higher Level of Understanding

The full range of geospatial applications for AR is still being discovered, but a primary use today is identifying and finding assets more quickly and efficiently. AR is intrinsically a part of the locating process, particularly in “call before you dig” situations where underground assets could be damaged. Some digging equipment can be programmed with limits telling them not to dig in certain areas. As accuracy of data increases, this will become even more useful.

In a flooding situation, perhaps a gas valve is 4-feet under water and needs to be located and shut off. Or in a flooded street, manhole covers have been dislodged and emergency workers need to be able to avoid the dangerous openings. AR can expedite locating the assets, while creating a safer work environment by providing detailed information.

AR also allows users to visualize 3D relationships that wouldn’t be obvious on a map. For example, if a pipeline pig detects an obstruction in an oil or gas pipeline running through a field, a worker could use the AR application to view the field with an overlay of the pipe schematic and see that there’s a large tree growing near the pipe, which very likely is the cause of the problem. 

“By using our data more effectively, we discover better ways to tell the story,” Hustad explains. “Most people can’t communicate the ‘where’ in an easily understood way, so it helps to visualize that.”

The Argis Lens mobile app and viewer is fairly simple to use and requires only a few hours of training to become operational. Within a few weeks, users can fully understand and apply the value of augmented reality to their work.

Growing Interest in the Geospatial Community

The geospatial community recognizes that there are multiple uses for the same labels, points, lines and polygons that make up a GIS. Precise locations of assets hidden under the ground are very important, as well as flow direction within pipes and vector data that defines a right-of-way on the surface. By making it easier to use GIS data to improve the efficiency of work in the real world, the investment in acquiring and maintaining data is easier to justify. 

There are several software developers besides Argis Solutions that are creating AR solutions. In New Zealand, Augview Limited focuses on telecom and utilities. Started in 2012, the founders recognized the potential for this technology when mobile computing capabilities rapidly improved. Meemim in Canada creates visualization products for utilities, planning and exploration. A partner with Esri and Microsoft, Meemim is currently patenting the spatial calibration method on its AR platform.

The academic community is also aware of the growing interest in using augmented reality and GIS in the workplace. Several top programs are incorporating AR training into geospatial programs to better prepare students for real-world applications.

“We are embedding augmented reality into our cartography curriculum and renaming the course ‘Geovisualization’ in the future,” says Steve Hick, GIS program director and professor, Denver University. “Augmented reality is particularly useful for identifying underground infrastructure, planning built environments, visualizing models in any space, and urban planning. Being able to stand in a field and overlay a model of what is underneath the surface and what will be built on top raises our understanding to a new level. It’s very beneficial for students to experience this type of hands-on field work and be exposed to cutting-edge technology.”

Future Directions

A major impact of AR on GIS in the future should be the demand for better data. Today, a primary objection to not implementing AR is that the existing data in an organization’s GIS is not accurate enough to visualize and take the place of manual safety checks. Without a cost and time savings, not everyone sees the immediate value of AR. But over time, GIS data will become more accurate, which will provide an opportunity to improve and replace existing work processes. Even without high accuracy, AR quickly lets users compare real-world asset situations to what the GIS record shows. This speeds up quality assurance in a way that has never been possible. 

“We also see more CAD and 3D models being used, so we are expanding the Argis Lens framework to work with other source data, such as schematics and diagrams, in addition to locational and GIS data from ArcGIS,” Hustad says. “We’re also planning a new ArcGIS solution for the education sector that bundles use of AR technology in the classroom, in facilities management and in new student orienteering/marketing. We see potential for AR in many different areas.”

Another growth segment to watch is wearable AR devices, such as the HoloLens being developed by Microsoft. Although not widely accepted in the field yet, and still too expensive for broad adoption, in the future looking at infrastructure, architectural plans, and everything else through AR glasses may be commonplace.