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AR headsets are becoming seriously useful in the field, as maturity arrives faster than many expected.

Dutch multinational Fugro may be one of those companies whose name has flown under your radar. Yet the Dutch multinational (which has a market cap of just under $1 billion) is one of the world’s biggest geodata specialists, with 9,500+ employees globally offering services spanning everything from marine geotechnics — field and laboratory testing, computer simulations and more for offshore projects — through to geohazard consulting; e.g. advising on foundation siting and routing roads, pipelines and cables.

As a company often working in frontier environments that are challenging and time-consuming to fly engineers to — and which often suffer from poor connectivity — Fugro makes a seriously good case for the argument that augmented reality (AR)-supporting headsets have finally come of age, after years of heavy, poorly performing, over-priced kit that has struggled to take off. That’s not to say Fugro’s buying up AR headsets in their thousands. But on a recent call with The Stack Duncan Allen, who’s global programme manager for remote operations, was effusive about their benefits.

Fugro recently bought 40+ headsets from RealWear then built some heavily customised software around them with help from Dutch AR specialist VR Expert. As Allen explains: “We’ve got a fleet of about 50 vessels globally. And putting the right people in the right place to support those vessels and keeping those vessels operational with the highest operational uptime we can is crucial, basically. If an engine fails or a part fails, having to bring it into shore is a big issue. So if we’re able to have someone support the people offshore, that’s brilliant. Having those headsets to enable somebody to see what the person offshore can see, and make those fixes to keep the vessels operational has been crucial.”

A few concrete examples: “We recently had a vessel in a dry dock in West Africa. Normally the vessel superintendent would go down to the dry dock to undertake an inspection to work out when they have to do sandblasting. For a range of reasons that wasn’t possible, so we had one of the crew go down into the dry dock, put the headset on and walk around and talk to the superintendent in real time. They could locate the areas that needed sandblasting, and transfer that information to the contractor to get on and do the job. That saved a lot of hassle…”

“We saved 28 days worth of someone’s time for an eight-hour fix”

“Again, we had a fault on a third-party vessel in Asia. Typically fixing it would have required one of the technicians from that third-party company to come along and make the fix. Given Covid-19, they would have had to deploy that person, who would have had to wait 14 days in quarantine before they go to the vessel, and the 14 days on the way back. That’s a lot of cost for what turned out to be effectively an eight hour fix. By deploying these headsets, we saved 28 days worth of someone’s time.”

Fugro AR headsets
The HMT-1 headset. Retails at $2,500.

The call’s been set up by a PR agency and everyone on it has skin in the game. Despite this, it’s just one recent example of arguably faster maturity in the sector than many expected. (Gartner just two years ago was arguing that “it will take 5 to 10 years before [AR and VR] reach a mature level.)

Fugro started shopping about for AR headset options “around three years ago”. As Allen notes: “We did look at several options. Microsoft’s Halo looked fancy but was heavy and not very practical. But what we settled for has got amazingly accurate voice control, even next to a hull being sandblasted, and it works well with our PPE, as well as being rugged.”

Hardware-wise, Fugro opted for RealWear’s HMT-1, which (for those following the sector’s specs) weighs in at 380g, and runs on Android 8.1.0 (AOSP) + WearHF hands-free interface, powered by a 2.0 GHz 8-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 with an Adreno 506 GPU, underpinned by
16 GB Internal Storage / 2 GB RAM / MicroSD slot. It connects via Bluetooth or WiFi and comes fitted with a 9-DOF (3-axis accelerometer, magnetometer, and gyroscope), software enhanced stabilisation).

Headsets don’t ship out of the box ready to handle obscure geodata use cases, needless to say, so Fugro tapped up Dutch consultancy VR Expert, who got to work building some custom software including capabilities that enhanced connectivity in challenging locations; allowing end-users to continue working without interrupt even through the most “jittery” of connectivity.

The company’s Tim Nijland told The Stack: “A lot of the requirements were around connectivity. Fugro are sometimes in a black hole of connectivity, where they solely rely on technology like satellite internet. That required us to think ‘okay, how can we maintain a stable internet with stable video connection throughout the deployment of maintenance or support?’ So what the software we built does is automatically adjust to the available bandwidth: it scales down in frames per second, but not in resolution. So you always get the same resolution, the same clarity of the image, but the frames per second might go down a bit to compensate for the lack of bandwidth. That was a really important one. Another aspect was full control of the users and of the software itself; they needed to add users, remove users, to manage devices and to see analytics.

“Luckily the headsets run on Android which saves a headache; being able to tweak and test on Android is a really big help”.

To Fugro, which works with a range of blue chip clients across sectors ranging from extractive industries to renewable energy, the new toolkit has also allowed them to bring customers more closely into the fold.

As Duncan Allen puts it: “We can now engage them in real time with somebody else walking around with the headsets; they feel like they’re part of the teams, they’re able to observe the safety inspections, they’re able to observe the data collection, which is really crucial. We can show exactly what we’re doing and that we are doing it effectively.”

See also: Hyundai is seeking a CTO to help it bring flying cars to market by 2028

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