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Virtual reality pipe inspection

Collecting real-time information about water pipes is no easy feat but one university has been working on technology that could provide organisations with more insight into the process of water pipe inspection.

The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) has designed the UTS Data Arena – a 360-degree interactive data visualisation facility aiming to change the way people view and interact with data and visualise structures. Water pipe inspection is one of the ways the university is using the technology, to manipulate the data retrieved and use it to deliver better outcomes. 

Working as part of an industry collaboration between UTS, Monash University, the University of Newcastle and some local and international utilities, the project manipulates large data sets derived from scanning sections of large diameter metallic pipes with high resolution laser scanners.

The project’s aim is to provide an innovative mechanism for utilities to manage their critical water mains network more efficiently in terms of targeted planned renewal and rehabilitation programs.

Dr Jaime Valls Miro, an Associate Professor in the UTS Faculty of Engineering and IT Centre for Autonomous Systems said this includes investigating the key mechanisms that leads to pipe failure of large critical assets and the factors that drive the corrosion processes in these assets – a key element in their degradation over time.

He also said it involves the potential of non-destructive techniques to provide the parameters needed to be able to undertake failure analysis.

“We want to analyse the data that is being used to inspect those pipes with various techniques, so that we can catch them before they break,” he said.

Behind the scenes

A key aspect of this project is exhuming the water pipes so they can be inspected with very high-definition 3D lasers, creating a visual representation using a set of data points, or ‘point clouds’.

“The Data Arena has helped in visualising these massive point clouds and manipulate them in a manner that can be easily understood and appreciated by a human observer, as well as running intense computations to aid in the assessment of the pipe wall condition,” Valls Miro said.

Going by a colour code, people will be able to equate the remaining wall thickness with holes and cracks.

“For water industry organisations that usually own and maintain a large volume of pipelines, non-destructive testing (NDT) inspection and the prediction of a pipe’s remaining life are important procedures in developing effective renewal programs aimed at reducing the incidence of catastrophic failures,” Valls Miro said.

“The project’s goal is to provide utility managers with a practical tool and procedures to help them in determining the optimal replacement schedule for these critical mains.”

A new perspective

The application of the UTS Data Arena as an information collection and assessment tool is clearly of interest to the water industry, with potential uses that will change the way it works with water pipes.

“[Water industry personnel] are quite in awe seeing their own assets from a different perspective, not just as an asset number as they normally appear, but with a more physical meaning attached to it,” Valls Miro said.

He also said there is huge potential for the Data Arena in terms of research, regardless of the industry. “The project is currently focused on water but parts of it have already been tested in sewage networks.”

Moreover, the project also encompasses the study of operational aspects surrounding water pipes such as pressure transients or traffic loads, such as soil, exerted on buried pipes.

The university expects the UTS Data Arena to provide a powerful way to simplify complexity as deep visual immersion can assist industry and government to identify patterns, discover trends and steer research.

“It’s a powerful immersive facility which can help business, government, and research simplify complex information. Users can surround themselves in data to observe, explore, refine, improve, discover and learn,” the university claimed.

First published in Current magazine February 2018.