The location: Camchester, West Bartonshire
A white van draws to a halt alongside a busy main road. A man leaps out of the cab, strides purposefully round to the rear of vehicle, throws open the doors, grabs a handful of traffic cones and begins cordoning-off a section of the road. Task completed, the man returns to the van and clambers into the back.
Minutes later, he reappears pushing a small, wheel-mounted rectangular box. This time he is dressed in a white boilersuit. A belt around his waist supports a small computer-processing unit. Strapped to his left arm is the computer keyboard. A headset supports a computer screen the size of a postage stamp in front of his left eye. He snaps out commands to the computer, using a microphone suspended from the headset .
This is not avant-garde performance art; nor is it a scene from a future episode of Doctor Who.
It is the utility worker of the future going about his job. The wheeled box contains a radar transmitter, and when the unit is trundled up and down the road in parallel sweeps it can create a 3D image of the maze of cables, wires, pipes, ducts and drains buried beneath its surface. While the head-mounted display shows the operative what is buried in the ground up to 3 m below, a mini-satellite dish mounted on top of the unit tracks its position and provides the precise location for each of the pipes and cables.
Imagine a time when all road workers use this system before they start drilling. No slices through electricity cables, no phones falling dead as telephone cables are cut. And this day is not as far off as it might seem – the system has already been used on projects for gas distribution company Transco and for Yorkshire Water.
This contains the computer screen, an earpiece speaker and a microphone and can even support an integrated video camera. The screen can be positioned in front of either the user's left or right eye. Despite its miniscule size, the unit can display the same information as a normal desk-top sized monitor.
2. Belt-mounted computer
A battery-powered, shockproof unit contains the computer processor, built-in mouse and speech recognition software.
3. Radar unit
The wheeled unit contains the ground-penetrating radar and the unit's global positioning system. The radar provides a 3D map of the buried pipes and cables, while the GPS means that the unit remembers its position. This means that if a parked car blocks the survey area, the operative can return later and carry on the job where they left off. Also handy if you want a tea break.