Engineers could soon check the world’s biggest bridges from the comfort of their own office

Some of the world’s most famous bridges could be checked by safety experts located thousands of miles away if research using Microsoft’s HoloLens mixed reality headset is successful.

Engineers at the University of Cambridge have started initial trials to see if construction inspectors could use HoloLens to spot potentially dangerous cracks in bridges without having to physically visit the site.

Workers required at the location take pictures of the structure using digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras, before uploading them to a cloud service, such as Microsoft Azure. Safety experts could then view those images, which have been stitched together, zoom in and out of the bridge, rotate and “walk” around it from anywhere in the world using HoloLens.

Using Microsoft’s technology would be cheaper and quicker than sending an inspector to visit the site, while being able to enhance certain parts of bridges could also result in more accurate conclusions. This could mean fewer large-scale repairs, keeping bridges open for longer, and cutting traffic delays and congestion.

The trials are part of a collaboration between the University of Cambridge’s Construction Information Technology (CIT) Laboratory and Trimble, a California-based company that provides technology for the construction, geospatial, agriculture and transportation industries. The Trimble Sponsorship Program, which provides funding and expertise, aims to create technology that will improve safety, reduce costs and increase efficiency across the construction industry.

“The construction sector is undergoing rapid transformation as a result of the revolution in digital engineering,” said Dr Ioannis Brilakis, a Laing O’Rourke Lecturer, Director of CIT Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. “The university has a wide portfolio of research projects which aim to solve problems in the construction sector.”

HoloLens

“This exciting relationship with Trimble will enable us to work together to push forward our agenda to develop new, transformative tools and technologies to deliver a much safer and more productive construction industry and help build the infrastructure on which the well-being of society depends.”

Engineers at the university have also looked into whether HoloLens can be used to enable building companies to keep track of work while constructing homes and offices, and if the device can assist manufacturers by cutting down on the need to regularly refer to blueprints.

Aviad Almagor, Director of the Mixed Reality Program at Trimble, said: “Cambridge University is a world-renowned educational institution, and it’s been a fascinating experience to partner with the university and Microsoft, using HoloLens to envision the future of the AEC industry. This initiative has helped us to inform the next frontier of technology within the sector – especially in areas such as construction, where IT has traditionally been underutilised. At Trimble, we’re excited about the potential Mixed Reality has to transform this industry, and partnering with Cambridge and Microsoft is just the beginning.”

Rather than place users in a fully isolated computer-generated world, as virtual reality does, HoloLens showcases mixed reality, allowing the wearer to put 3D digital models in the physical space. As the Windows 10-based product is fully self-contained and does not require a connection to a phone or PC, users can walk around the objects they create and interact with them using gestures, gaze and voice.

HoloLens launched in the UK on October 12, 2016, with devices shipping from late November. To date, NASA has used HoloLens to recreate Mars in their offices, allowing scientists to virtually conduct operations on the Red Planet. Meanwhile, Trimble launched a mixed-reality extension to SketchUp, and Thyssenkrupp Elevator is using HoloLens to help engineers.

Find out more about HoloLens at www.microsoft.com/microsoft-hololens/en-gb.