Mixed-reality tech to help engineers inspect bridges from their desks

Engineers may soon be able to check bridges for cracks from the comfort of their offices thanks to a combination of full-scale Building Information Models (BIMs) and mixed-reality visualisation techniques being developed by the University of Cambridge, in collaboration with Trimble and Microsoft.

The new technologies will let engineers see fully textured infrastructure models while sitting at their desks wearing mixed-reality headsets and, if it is a new structure, to visit the site and view the structure through schedule-loaded BIMs to check on construction progress at a glance.

Images are captured by workers at the site, who take pictures of the structure using digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras, and upload them to a cloud service. Engineers can view those images, which have been stitched together, while "walking" around it from every perspective using Microsoft’s HoloLens headset.

Bringing a bridge to life at full scale while still being aware of your surroundings is a major time saver for experienced inspectors.– Dr Ioannis Brilakis, University of Cambridge

The approach would be cheaper and quicker than sending an engineer to visit the site, while being able to zoom in on certain parts of structures could also result in more accurate diagnoses.

"Bringing a bridge to life at full scale while still being aware of your surroundings is a major time saver for experienced inspectors," said Dr Ioannis Brilakis, Laing O’Rourke lecturer of construction engineering at the University of Cambridge. Research behind the Bridge Inspector HoloLens app was conducted by PhD student Philipp Huethwohl.

Meanwhile, the Progress Monitoring HoloLens app, also created by the Cambridge team, allows engineering to bring four-dimensional design models to site and intelligently superimpose them on the real structure. The app allows construction inspectors both to visualise progress and automatically detect building elements that should have been built at the time of their visit but are missing.

"All elements missing are marked as behind schedule automatically in the 4D model simply by looking at them during an inspection visit," said Marianna Kopsida, the PhD student responsible for this project.

The team’s current research focuses on how to guide inspectors in these massive models and focus their attention on the elements most relevant to their inspection task-list.

"This is all about productivity and improving workflows," said Dr Brilakis.

Photograph: PhD student Marianna Kopsida tests her construction progress monitoring app with the HoloLens mixed-reality headset (By University of Cambridge Department of Engineering)

• From University of Cambridge.

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