Augmented Reality Technology Adds New Dimension to Infrastructure Design, Planning and Maintenance

July 21, 2021

The Lifeline Sectors that Ulteig serves (Power, Renewables, Transportation, and Water) are undergoing a massive transformation – accelerating technological changes, increasingly outdated infrastructure, shrinking trained workforces, and threats posed by climate change. In 2020-21, the COVID-19 pandemic added yet another disruptive force to the mix. In the face of these challenges, Ulteig sought out agile and resilient solutions to address our clients’ most pressing needs.

Rita McGrath, the renowned business innovation scholar, author, and consultant, recently spotlighted an innovative approach that Ulteig utilized in serving its client Xcel Energy. In her Thought Sparks blog Ms. McGrath highlighted how Ulteig used augmented reality smart glasses to conduct virtual site visits.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many companies to move to work-from-home arrangements to limit person-to-person contact. This posed a unique problem for Ulteig’s power utility clients, including Xcel Energy, who could not entirely eliminate physical visits to the critical power infrastructure sites that Ulteig designs and Xcel Energy owns and operates.

To address this challenge, Xcel Energy and Ulteig pioneered the use of mixed and augmented reality technologies to conduct virtual site visits. In utilizing this relatively new technology, the team realized a number of benefits, such as improved employee safety, time and cost savings and enhanced collaboration. We have found the greatest success with Microsoft’s HoloLens 2, a mixed- reality headset.

This futuristic device essentially acts as smart glasses and packs substantial computing power with an array of environmental sensors, including a video camera, multiple microphones and depth sensors. When paired with software that merges seamlessly with Microsoft Teams video conferencing, those attending the video conference can remotely view exactly what the wearer is seeing in real-time, all powered securely behind-the-scenes by Microsoft Azure cloud services.

The remote collaborators can guide the site visit by providing directions or asking questions to the HoloLens 2 wearer. Where the HoloLens 2 really differentiates itself is in the ability of remote users to share their computer screen or documents directly into the video conference, appearing as virtual holograms within the real environment of the device wearer. This coupled with holographic arrows and “3D ink” has allowed our teams to provide guidance to field employees with actual engineering drawings.

These features have allowed Xcel Energy and Ulteig to re-create all the benefits of a physical site visit and more. During the pandemic, reducing the number of people sent to a site decreased the risk of virus transmission while substantially reducing travel expenses and associated carbon emissions. In addition, we expanded the number of people involved in site visits from what was possible before, in some instances bringing in more than 60 people to the virtual visit! This virtual collaboration improves stakeholder alignment on project kickoffs.

Looking forward, Ulteig plans to further capitalize on the capabilities of mixed reality to produce interactive virtual field guides for our employees that can be customized for, and spatially anchored to, a given location. We also plan to use this technology for 3D model overlays of engineering designs to help with the planning and construction of new assets.

Embracing innovation is a critical strategy in staying ahead of the competition and seamlessly adapting to constantly changing business environments. Ulteig is proudly working with innovation thought leaders such as Rita McGrath to guide our Lifeline Sector clients through the 21st-century challenges they face.

To learn more about Ulteig’s innovation culture and our augmented reality solutions:

  • Operations & Maintenance, Technology