A virtual tunnel boring machine is changing the face of health and safety at the cutting face on Tideway.
A nugget of an idea from a brainstorming session between Ferrovial Agroman, Laing O’Rouke and 3D communication company Hobs 3D in 2016 has now become reality - virtual reality to be more precise.
Tasked with investigating how Tideway could use immersive technologies in the construction of the tunnel, the brainstorming session saw Hobs 3D present how virtual reality, immersive technology and augmented reality technologies could benefit the work.
“This set off a load of light bulbs to where we could use technology in tunnel safety,” explains Alex Vaughan, head of health, safety and security for Tideway Central, working under the Ferrovial Agroman and Laing O’Rouke joint venture (FLO JV).
“We were having a play around with the gadgets and we thought we can definitely do something with this, something different from the normal linear dictatorial style of tunnel safety training.”
Awarded £5,000 from FLO JV, Vaughan was able to engage further with Hobs 3D and, using the BIM model of the tunnel boring machine (TBM), develop a rudimentary virtual TBM.
Consisting of a large screen, projector, tablets and headsets, users are able to familiarise themselves with the TBM before even going underground. “It was part of a TBM, basic, more of a visual, it wasn’t immersive, but it was in 3D and that was enough to give people an idea of what we were trying to do,” says Vaughan.
The virtual TBM can be “walked through” by users wearing a headset and using a tablet for navigation. Vaughan and his colleagues worked with Hobs 3D to ensure that the TBM was as authentic as possible, including general grime and dirt and a statue of Saint Barbara – the patron saint of tunnelling.
The idea was then showcased at an internal Tideway innovation forum receiving positive feedback, including refining the design of the actual TBM with an estimated £80,000 saving on assembly costs. “Two tunnel engineers walked past as we were looking at the projection,” explains Vaughan, “and they noticed that the positioning of the screw conveyer needed changing. They saw straight away that something needed changing in the design. That is when we really knew we could more with this as a concept.”
We were having a play around with the gadgets and we thought we can definitely do something with this, something different from the normal linear dictatorial style of tunnel safety training
Fast forward to June 2017 and Vaughan found himself presenting in a Dragon’s Den style competition called Tideway’s Great Think. In the studio where the TV programme is made, Vaughan successfully pitched for £20,000 to further develop the concept. “We wanted £20,000 to build a full TBM in virtual reality, to deliver familiarisation training on the boring machine before the TBM is even built,” Vaughan explains.
The prototype was fast tracked to be presented at Digital Construction Week last year and in January this year “Barbara” the virtual reality 120m long TBM was up and running.
“We were lucky,” says Vaughan, “the Central area TBM is manufactured by French company NFM, which has been very keen to share their BIM model. This has made it much easier for Hobs 3D to ‘gamify’ the BIM model to essentially develop a virtual reality X-Box game about a TBM.”
According to Vaughan, there were three principles that he wanted integral to the project – accessibility, portability and affordability – all of which have been achieved.
“I wanted the technology to be accessible,” Vaughan says. “I wanted it to out there for the industry to use, we don’t want to be exclusive about it, we everyone to have access to it. Already HS2 want to use it as standard and they are looking at other applications to use the technology for stations.”
Currently the virtual TBM is housed in a large cardboard pod – measuring around 6m by 4m, which can be easily transported to exhibitions and workshops. Not only can it be dismantled easily, but the pod can be recycled at the end of its useful life.
Hobs 3D national sales director Shay O’Carroll explains that the pod was built to meet their requirements, rather than the software and hardware designed to meet the constraints of a much more expensive and restrictive pod.
“We looked at other environments and they were very overpriced, were not made from sustainable material and didn’t seem portable. We were able to develop the environment around what we wanted, not the limitations of the box,” says O’Carroll.
“For portability, we can literally pack the equipment into a case and project it on to any wall. We can take it out and put it all in a sea container on site if we wanted to,” explains Vaughan. “It doesn’t need to be in the pod.
“You can some quotes for immersive training experiences and you can be looking at between £60,000 to £80,000 to just put it in. If we are looking at affordability, the whole package here, technology and development include, comes in at under £20,000. We are talking serious savings. This was really important to us.”
Hobs 3D’s O’Carroll agrees: “We wanted to put as much budget into the content, not the software and hardware. We want the budget to be focussed on content so we can maximise what we offer. To be the most cost effective on hardware, so we can maximise the budget on the content and creating the experience.”
Once we’d gone through the process of developing it, none of us, even the visualisation team, could believe how good it was
In the meantime, interest from Advance Forming Research Centre at Strathclyde University and the Advance Manufacturing Research Centre at Sheffield University has resulted in a further £67,500 from Innovate UK to invest in the next phrase of developing more modules, which will use the “on head” experience.
“At the moment we have the one module, which is the familiarisation of the whole machine, but the next plans are the break that down into further modules, including the hyperbaric chamber. I have seen a prototype and I nearly fell over when I got out to the cutter head. It is that real,” says Vaughan.
But maybe the next steps sound most exciting for the industry. The longer-term strategy is looking to create a digital twin and a digital master of a TBM.
Vaughan explains: “You could end up having real time monitoring data being fed back to the virtual TBM. And, in the future, it might be possible to operate the boring machine in a virtual reality environment. It’s Elon Musk territory and something that both Sheffield and Strathclyde Universities are interested in. They want to create a digital master of the TBMs actually in the ground.”
“It’s not about removing people or jobs, it’s about people doing their jobs from a safer environment, rather than in a tunnelling machine. We are going to look in applications into controlling TBMs remotely,” adds O’Carroll.
When young people see that the gaming software they use on their consoles is the same that we are using, they are really engaged. It’s the gamification that is attractive
It is this turning around of the process that could one day see the design of TBMs being dictated by virtual reality environment. “If you get the BIM model earlier enough for the TBM, you can use it for design and modification of the machine,” says Vaughan. “If you had all the fitters, designers and engineers looking at the BIM model in a virtual reality environment, you could plan ergonomically, plan your escape routes, where pipe works are going to go etc. You can make things so much more efficient.”
And the virtual TBM has also proved popular when it has been used at STEM events. “When young people see that the gaming software they use on their consoles is the same that we are using, they are really engaged,” says Vaughan. “It’s the gamification that is attractive.”
“After years of working in tunnelling, where you are trying to find different ways to train and engage with people, and this has been more than we can have every hoped for,” says Vaughan.
O’Carroll agrees: “Once we’d gone through the process of developing it, none of us, even the visualisation team, could believe how good it was.”
“The whole process has been amazing. We were able to brain dump all our ideas to the wizards and visualisers at Hobs 3D and it has come to life. Well nearly real life. It’s come to virtual reality,” adds Vaughan.