Using data to visualize construction projects in a new way

Data in your handsEverywhere you look these days data is being collected. Whether it’s to enhance your shopping experience or develop new products the strategic collection and connection of data has the power to improve our lives.

At the Iowa DOT, we are continuously collecting data on the construction and maintenance projects we work on every day. This mountain of data is simply a bunch of images, documents, and numbers if it can’t be connected in a meaningful way.

Matt Miller, our director of Emerging Technologies, is working to connect the dots so that the data we collect can tell a story and help mold the future of safe and reliable transportation. One tool Miller is exploring is augmented reality.

Augmented reality is defined as an interactive experience that enhances the real world with computer-generated perceptual information. Using software, apps, and hardware, augmented reality overlays digital content onto real-life environments and objects. It is similar to virtual reality, but with augmented reality, you see what is real and add elements to it instead of creating an entirely new or “virtual” reality.  

Des Moines River bridge scan from droneOne concept to understand before we can dig deeper into the benefits of augmented reality is the concept of digital modeling. Long gone are the days of paper plans being hand-drawn on drafting tables. Designers at the Iowa DOT now use state-of-the-art software systems to design and visualize projects. These digital plans are referred to as models. When our construction inspectors are physically on a construction site checking details of the project, they can access these digital models on iPads to compare what is being built to what was designed.  

While these models are extremely helpful, they lack one element – geographical location data. That’s where Miller’s work with augmented reality comes in.

Augmented reality benefits in the real world

VGIS scan - augmented reality
This scan of a roadway used augmented reality to “see” the piping under the pavement.


Miller explained the current workflow being studied uses a suite of mapping software that we already use statewide, and combines it with an augmented reality platform that allows you to use an iPhone or iPad to augment the image you can see through the device. When geographic information is added to these elements, you have a powerful suite of tools that allows you to see not only what is in front of you, but also add elements in augmented reality that are anchored to that geographic area.

Using these tools, we can “see” how work on a project is progressing. Miller said, “With augmented reality, you’re standing there and holding up the iPad or iPhone and seeing what is right in front of you and the model overlayed directly to your specific location,” Miller explained. “That way you can see not only what is there, but what is going to be there when the project is completed.”

CGIS scan - plan
Using augmented reality and a GPS antenna, inspectors in the field can document and add measurements and other elements to scans and send them directly to designers so they can be incorporated into updated plans for a project.

Miller says augmented reality can also help in the planning phases of a project, too. He shared this example. “If we’re planning a project, we need to know exactly where each item, like a utility pole, is located. Using augmented reality, our inspectors can mark these elements quickly and easily on a digital image and send that back to the designer, helping that designer develop plans using the most current and relevant data. Having that data stored can make it much easier to make updates in the future.”

During construction, the inspector can easily follow and document progress. Miller explained, “By holding a device and scanning the project, the inspector can use layers to place data from the construction site directly on top of the model. This shows the inspector the exact geographic location of each element of the project. That data can also be quickly and easily captured, stored, and shared.”

Miller also commented that this information is in real-time. He said, “We use a lot of satellite images, and they are very useful, but they only update every year or so. Using the augmented models, we have very current images that we can use until the next round of satellite images are available.”

Safety and efficiency – two other benefits of augmented reality

Although we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of augmented reality’s benefits, the early results are very promising.

Example 1:

Cedric Wilkinson, an engineering technician senior out of our Davenport construction office, recently used it to quickly and easily contend with a construction problem where a contractor had inadvertently sawed into a beam under a bridge deck. A repair was needed quickly to ensure the safety of the travelers on the bridge.

Wilkinson was able to use augmented reality on his iPhone to measure the damage and then send it to the engineer who was working on a solution. Within a couple of hours, the engineer had devised a fix that could be quickly implemented. Wilkinson said, “This tool is a way to quickly and easily get information back to the people who need it. It’s effective and very accurate.”

Example 2:

Salt shed scan
Salt shed scan

To continue to test the accuracy of the system, Miller decided to test measuring the contents of one of our salt storage facilities to see how well the augmented reality did in predicting the amount of salt left in the building. Using his basic, state-issued iPhone, he scanned the contents of the salt storage shed. Using standard calculations, he determined the amount of salt in the building. Then he double-checked with our Maintenance office in Ames to see how much salt our current reporting system was showing as stored in the shed. Miller said, “The accuracy of the digital scan was spot-on.”

He finished by saying, “Since this technology is cloud-based, it is very affordable because you don’t need specialized, high-powered equipment. With a simple iPhone or iPad and a basic computer, you quickly solve problems that take much more effort using traditional methods.

For Iowa DOT employees, Miller presented this information and much more during an “Innovation Power Hour” on Jan.31. A recording of that session can be found on DOTNET.


Widgets-gadgetsEditor’s note: This post is part of a series related to our goal of “Supporting a Culture of Innovation” at the Iowa Department of Transportation. We are working to find innovative ways to improve processes, tools, & relationships to create positive experiences for our customers.


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