Visual Computing, Wearables Reinvent Surveying Field Practices / by Scott A.


Surveying, like other field-based work, is fraught with the need to go back to the office to reference on-premises documents or to check in on work requirements. As a result, there have been efforts by commercial providers to give workers in the field more complete access to research and documentation so they can cut down on trips back to the office.

One way of doing this is by equipping wearable devices with information that is needed in the field.

“We’re using a number of cutting-edge technologies in our wearables that can assist field-based workers such as surveyors,” says Paul Sweeney, vice president and general manager of DAQRI International,  which provides wearables and wearables solutions.  “Among these are augmented reality (AR), which enables the super-positioning of digital 2D and 3D information over the user’s actual view of the world; and visual inertial navigation, which infuses to the wearable device information from advanced inertial sensors — such as inertial measurement units, or IMUs — which describe movement related data, with computer vision. This enables us to very accurately determine a user’s location and gaze, or, in other words, what specifically they are looking at.”

Sweeney says that these new wearable technologies allow surveyors and other field workers to use a new form of computing called visual computing.

With visual computing,  you can interact with and control work by manipulating visual images either as direct work objects or as objects representing other objects that are not necessarily visual themselves. The visual images can be photographs, 3D scenes, video sequences, block diagrams or simple icons.

“In combination with wearables, this gives users a hands-free interface to a computing platform, which they are wearing,” Sweeney says. “A user can access 3D models and other significant and relevant data for their work, such as BIM or GIS data, in real-time context and through a very rich and intuitive interface. Studies show that this offers massive improvement in productivity because you no longer have to go back and forth to read manuals. The process improves decision making and also provides for greater health and safety, as the user’s hands are free.”

Particularly in surveying, wearables equipped with AR enable users to interact with GIS data in the real world. This includes 3D models of objects in the real world, but it can also include visualizations where power lines, water pipelines or other utilities are located in real space.

“GPS allows for a user’s position to be identified, which is key to being able to understand where a user is in relation to an absolute model of an environment,” Sweeney says. “In our own products, we supplement GPS with our visual inertial navigation technology, which allows the accurate determination of a user’s position even in GPS-denied environments, such as indoors.”

Sweeney says that companies are starting to use AR wearables to deploy task lists and work instructions to their workers. In these cases, workers receive their work instructions via augmented reality wearables, which guide them step-by-step through work tasks rather than their having to work from a paper copy, or memorized instructions. Workers can also inspect their work by comparing it to 3D models, which can be overlaid on the actual work, facilitating effective, real-time compliance control and evaluation.
“Technologies like these can help surveyors or other field-based workers visualize a concept and compare it to surrounding reality,” Sweeney says. “Traditionally, this would have been carried out by comparing a 3D representative drawing to the real world by eye. Now, you can use this technology to overlay a 3D model, to scale, over the real world view as you go in real time. AR wearables can provide the user with work instructions, showing them visually what tasks they need to complete, in sequence, and can be a huge help in inspection and compliance tasks.”
Wearables are still in beginning stages of implementation at many companies, and there are a number of challenges that must be overcome to bring this technology to the broad market.

“The main one is figuring out how to minimize the processing power required to analyze the user’s position and movements in 3D space,” Sweeney says. “As always, when you use computing power, there is the challenge of making it run as efficiently as possible so that the device can function for a long time without consuming huge amounts of battery. The process of analyzing a user’s changing position and correlating it to an absolute location in the 3D model places huge demands on the power and algorithms required to generate and render the real-time displays. There can also be challenges to integrating all this with the sources of data which exist in the user’s IT system.”

Over the next few years, we can expect greater miniaturization that will pack more processing and features into smaller devices. Central to this progress are energy technology advances that can prolong battery life. Along with this, advances in optical technology will improve the quality of 3D imagery used in AR wearables. 

What are the best ways that companies can start plugging wearables into their strategies and operations?

“Companies should consider using this type of technology where it offers the most real benefits,” Sweeney says. “Numerous studies have shown wearables can lead to dramatic reductions in error, coupled with shortened time to task completion. Typical-use cases tend to include work inspection tasks or tasks where the wearable can display AR work instructions that are significantly more effective than a paper-based work instruction.”  

For surveyors, any technology that can reduce trips to the office and give you what you need in the field can deliver measurable benefits.  It isn’t too early to pencil wearables into your strategic plans, and begin with a trial of the technology to see where it best delivers economies and effectiveness to daily workloads.