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Northumbrian and O2 develop immersive AR underground asset tool

Northumbrian is trialling four projects using 5G which it says will enable accurate and safer underground work.

The water company formed a strategic partnership with mobile network provider O2 to develop case studies using 5G to encourage other business users to adopt the technology.

Martin Jackson, head of information systems, strategy and enterprise architecture at Northumbrian, told sister publication Utility Week 5G offers “transformative” opportunities for the utilities and other business sectors.

“Very quickly we will hit the boundaries of what’s possible through current connectivity, then 5G will expand that out again and we will see things can be faster, more responsive, you can send more data with greater bandwidth available,” Jackson said. “It will allow us to innovate in new spaces.”

Northumbrian was one of a number of companies from various sectors to work with O2 to develop case studies to showcase how businesses could use 5G.

“It was a huge opportunity for our business and for broader utilities and for the water industry to really showcase how 5G could really impact our businesses and our industry.”

The ideas were born and developed during sprints at Northumbrian’s Innovation Festival over the past three years and projects began last November.

The first uses special glasses to create an immersive experience for use with the augmented reality underground map. The user can see where underground pipes and wires are for improved precision when carrying out work on pipes as well as to prevent fatal cable strikes.

Jackson said O2 built the solution itself by creating the digital overlay using the glasses.

“They’ve created the tool that allows us to be able to deliver that capability backwards and forwards. It’s an end to end solution, not just the connectivity part. Everything about the user experience has been developed in partnership with O2.”

The idea built upon work from previous Innovation Festivals to create a map of underground utility assets across the country. With Ordnance Survey, the company is mapping part of the Northeast and London.

“5G takes that data set and creates an immersive experience for the operations worker working with below ground assets. The concept allows them to put on a device called Microsoft HoloLens that overlays on to the real world a projection of virtual images to look below the ground. You can look at the ground and see the pipes underground in a virtual world.”

Another project is the Remote Expert. With 5G connectivity a maintenance engineer can connect with an office-based expert to jointly work on assets that the field engineer may not be familiar with.

The remote expert can see via a sensor camera mounted to a wearable device and instruct the field engineer on what part of a particular asset needs attention.

“It’s a way to really collaborate very closely between two parties, the expert can impart knowledge on to an individual, and they have access to that information in real time at the point they need. 5G is the connectivity that brings that together.”

Thirdly, Northumbrian developed the Barnacle, which connects to a toilet system to detect leakage, monitor pressure and water quality and feed the information back to the company. As part of the 5G trials there is a connectivity that will give opportunities to measure new things with the product. The sensor data can use data to deliver improved service to customers.

“At present this uses 3G but we wanted an opportunity to use sensor connectivity and 5G is the appropriate technology to connect that up,” Jackson said. “The ambition is that every toilet could be a smart toilet and we wanted to prove that was possible to do using 5G technology.”

The fourth project is to enable field workers to connect with necessary accurate asset information and guidelines when working in remote locations.

“Our area is hundreds of kilometres with hundreds of thousands of kilometres of assets, which is a lot of information in gigabytes. There is a big challenge to update operator’s tablets and devices with accurate information because of the current connectivity methods so we often have to take the tablets offline to do the updates. We want to deliver the data wirelessly wherever the individual might be ad 5G enables us to do that.”

Trials have been conducted to create 5G hotspots which field operators can visit and update their devices by extending the 5G connectivity to cover specific points.

Unlike the 3G and 4G networks, which give blanket coverage from a signal point, the 5G network will be available in smaller “pockets” close to a transmission point. This will enable coverage at specific locations in remote areas to connect to 5G. From summer 2020 rollout will begin in Sunderland and Newcastle as well as 20 UK cities.


By Ruth Williams

Topic: Innovation
Tags: asset management , Innovation , Northumbrian Water

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