New moves for building training: VR in underground construction
We live in a world where 90% of all data was created in the past two years, and there are now more interconnected devices on earth than there are people. The changes we see in technology are not just rapid, they’re exponential. It has been estimated that if the average car had advanced as quickly as the computer over the last 35 years, cars today would run at 3.5 million miles to the gallon and cost less than $5,000!
Within the construction industry however, there are fears that it has not kept up with the rapid pace of technological change and that a failure to rectify this situation may mean that UK construction and engineering firms will lose out to their international competitors.
But change is afoot and new projects that use the latest immersive technologies, including world-leading tech developed from the gaming sector, are underway.
Working with Hobs Studio, a visualisation, 3D design and 3D printing company who have extensive experience in the sector, and Ferrovial Agroman Laing O’Rourke Joint Venture (FLOJV), Tideway (the delivery client delivering £3.1bn of new infrastructure in London through design and construction of a new tunnel to reduce the overflows of raw sewage into the River Thames) invested £20,000 in a project to develop a cost-effective, interactive, pop-up virtual reality training system for its Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM). The project covers remote site orientation as well as health and safety training before entering hazardous environments including hyperbaric conditions.
“We had an opportunity to challenge and change the way we deliver our training. Our experience in digital engineering technology and techniques enabled us to develop a robust business case which Tideway, as a transformational client, believed in. Our approach was clear. We sought a realistic interactive solution that is cost effective, non-technical to set-up and is easily transportable. With this, we can transform the way we delivery training.”
— Tom Inglis, Lead Digital Engineer, FLOJV
Supplemented by additional funding from Innovate UK, the virtual safety training tool is designed to demonstrate the powerful impact that VR technology can realise in a training environment, allowing the construction workers to better understand potential on-site risks and find solutions. Working in a safe virtual environment, staff learn how to react effectively and efficiently to on-site risks.
Hobs is creating a bespoke system to interact with the virtual safety module to enable the site staff to experience a greater immersive experience. This can then be used for direct development with engineers on-site, for feedback, guidance and detailed training requirements. A prototype has been developed that can be carried by one person, set up in 10 minutes and operated easily by non-technical operatives.
While there are existing simulators such as BIM Caves currently available, these are cost-prohibitive, with entry-level product prices starting at around £30,000. They are also logistically challenging to relocate and technically challenging to set up, while the fully immersed headsets can only provide a single user experience and limit the opportunity for the trainer to interact with the trainee.
“To our knowledge there is no existing VR solution as proposed on the current UK market. This has not been done before and could transform health and safety training process for tunnelling projects in the UK.”
— Alex Vaughan, Head of Health and Safety, Ferrovial Agroman Laing O’Rourke Joint Venture
Shay O’Carroll, National Sales Director at Hobs Studio, adds that they wanted to deliver a solution that was portable and affordable.
Traditional training for this kind of work involves a mix of classroom-based training through PowerPoint slides, on-site underground training and in some cases 1:1 scale mock ups, which are expensive to produce. Industry experts agree that the adoption of digitisation through BIM will improve collaboration and demonstrate a change in the construction culture within the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry. The Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model (2016) supports this view, summarising that the construction sector must “modernise or die”.
The project proposes a novel approach to safety training with significant impacts on the AEC industry, which will also help to reduce project fragmentation and increase collaboration and project success.
In the last five years there have been 217 fatal injuries to workers in the construction sector. Using VR to develop a cost-appropriate, interactive and accessible training and site induction process, Tideway estimates that the project could potentially see a 20% reduction in training time, a 10% reduction in accidents and near-misses and significant increases in employee understanding of hazards and risks onsite.
The use of the VR training module will also demonstrate a transformational approach which will further promote FLO’s positive safety culture on site to ensure that the gains made initially aren’t just quick wins and are sustained throughout the life of infrastructure projects.
Using the Unreal Engine, developed by Epic Games, in combination with marketplace plugins for OSC communications and stereoscopic display, Hobs created an interactive group VR experience that gives viewers a high-fidelity induction into a hazardous environment. Using a simple tablet interface, communicating over a closed Wi-Fi network, the instructor/presenter can guide viewers through the virtual industrial space. Original CAD data was taken from Revit files and then optimised by Hobs to match the requirements of real-time visualisation.
The team have remained faithful to the industry’s naming conventions, where new equipment is named after a saint. This tool has been named after St Barbara, the patron saint of mining, and a virtual St Barbara has been created to sit in the technology.
Shay O’Carroll at Hobs explains that making the experience accessible for non-tech teams was essential, which is why they decided to use a tablet-based control system, which is easy for everybody to use.
As with any new systems, though feedback from users is very positive there are challenges around measuring the effectiveness of the new method versus the traditional methods, which is being assessed in the Innovate UK project.
According to Shay, Thames Tideway believe this has potential be transformational technology for the construction industry. The team at Hobs also received positive feedback on the project from a showcase at the Institute of Chartered Engineers, as well as from the Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy (TUCA), which is interested in using it for training courses.
At the British Tunnelling Society’s National Tunnelling Day event, the project received a lot of interest from young people who want to work in the construction industry. With those within the sector acutely aware that it is necessary to attract a young, talented and diverse workforce to ensure future growth and stability, promoting cutting-edge projects such as this is key. This initiative is being recognised as step change in safety training and has been recognised internally by Ferrovial Agroman, claiming a global innovation award.
FLOJV has highlighted several areas where the technology will be useful, for example in TBM familiarisation, emergency rescue training, maintenance training, STEMET activities, safety in design and creating digital twins. The company also attests to the fact that this digital asset is available to all and envisages that the training tool will be of benefit to miners, engineers, designers, site visitors, trainers, clients, contractors and TBM operators among others.
“Based on the feedback we’re getting, we have solution that is feasible in terms of hardware, content creation and cost,” explains Shay.
Hobs has also had interest from other similar major infrastructure programmes across the UK, though individual partners cannot yet be named. The studio can confirm however that it started the first Innovate UK project in January working with the AFRC, AMRC and LT Projects and has received additional funding to complete the next stage of the project, its digital twin research programme, combining the digital asset with the complete monitoring equipment.
Future add-ons for the project include developing additional dimensions/senses to aid the experience, including adding sound, as well as enhancing the basic training scenarios to include safety critical activities.
Shay confirms that the portable version of the tool is currently being shown at roadshows across the UK and is also appealing to other sectors, outside of construction. The system has applications for the property market, where it is currently being used, and the team is also working on a prototype for the medical sector, creating an orientation tool that patients, and particularly children, can use. Here the tool can help patients prepare for a potentially distressing experience, such as being immersed in an MRI machine for example, by gamifying the environment to make it more comfortable and accessible, and less threatening.
“Via the Tideway Alliance innovation programme ‘The Great Think’ we adopt emerging technologies to deliver transformational health, safety and wellbeing as we seek to reconnect Londoners with the River Thames. This vision has been realised by a client led collaboration starting literally in the “Dragons’ Den”, with fantastic technical support from FLO (Tideway Central) and the passionate creativity of Hobs Studio, resulting in a world class safety solution which is raising the bar for the tunnelling industry.”
— Paul Morris, Head of Innovation, Thames Tideway
“The obvious focus at the moment is on training, as well as health and safety,” says Shay. “But we also have scope to start looking at controlling elements of TBMs from the digital virtual environment, taking steps to use this as more than just a visualisation tool and instead starting to use it as a control centre. We’re also looking to the future of digital twinning, looking to interact with live environments.”
Tideway, Laing O’Rourke and Ferrovial are members of i3P, the Infrastructure Industry Innovation Platform supported by the Knowledge Transfer Network
Words: Bernadette Fallon