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Virtual reality set to reshape the water industry

As disruptive technologies like big data, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things take hold in the water industry, there’s one that tends to get left behind: virtual reality.

Virtual reality (VR) technology has been around for a decade, but it’s “still got a certain ‘new’ factor” for the water industry, said David Kirby, water and environment manager with KBR and immediate past president of the Victorian branch of the Australian Water Association.

“We have used VR in defence and oil and gas for a long time, where our projects are larger and have bigger budgets,” Kirby said.

However, as the technology has developed and costs have come down, VR has become more widely used and accepted.

“It’s previously been cost prohibitive for the water industry, but it’s now come to a price point where it’s affordable for most water industry projects” said Kirby, who will be speaking on VR technology at the upcoming Where the Waters Meet 2018 Tasmania Annual Conference.

VR technology has the potential to reshape many aspects of water industry capital projects, and Kirby said water industry organisations are starting to use it to improve safety and engineering outcomes for projects.

“When you have the goggles on and you’re fully immersed in the structure, you could walk around and look for trip hazards or maintenance access, for example. You can look at it from a cost perspective. You can look at it from a sustainability perspective,” he said.

It’s also an opportunity to get more input and feedback from onsite personnel before a structure is completed, as they are the ones who will work in a facility day and night. This benefit of using VR technology became apparent to Kirby during recent work on a Melbourne Water plant.

KBR presented a virtual copy of the final stage of the functional design plans to two different groups and conducted workshops with each to gain feedback. One group comprised experienced operators and senior engineers, “people who knew about these kinds of facilities and buildings that we were creating”, Kirby said. They sat in a room for a day and poured over the two-dimensional drawings, and came back with about 10 changes.

The other workshop had operators, technicians and site maintainers wearing VR goggles and doing structured virtual walkthroughs of the planned space. According to Kirby, the difference in outcomes between the two workshops was striking.

“They’re used to working around the space and servicing pumps and other equipment, so they know exactly how much space they need for certain tasks. And with the VR headgear, they were standing there, pretending to lift pumps and grab their tools,” Kirby said.

The room of senior engineers reviewing the plans were basing decisions off experience and judgement, but Kirby said the opportunity for the operators to interact with the space meant problem areas quickly became clear.

“When you have a maintenance crew member who is 200cm tall, and his elbows are going through a virtual wall as he tries to repair something because the space is not wide enough, then it’s an issue,” Kirby said.

He added that VR technology and virtual walkthroughs are great for troubleshooting problems, as well as getting buy-in from plant or facility operators. When they are able to provide feedback during the initial design phases, they feel like they are part of creating the final product.

“This team of operators was really engaged and excited. They were walking around and saying ‘I can see what it’s going to look like when I have to operate it in a year’s time when it’s built’,” Kirby said.

“They were excited that they were involved in the process and added real value, even though they only had a short time with the VR goggles.”

Kirby said their feedback was extremely useful for fine-tuning the design of the plant. However, he said projects like this only scratch the surface of what the water industry could do with virtual reality.

“A lot of where the water industry is at the moment is the first level, which is visualisation of reality,” he said.

According to him, this is about what an artist’s impression of a project would look like. The next level of maturity is simulation, which involves spatially accurate models, often used for safety and design review.

The next level up from that is familiarisation, which requires highly detailed imagery. Kirby said there’s lots of potential for the water industry to use this level of VR technology. One example he gave involved creating highly detailed models of facilities for staff members to familiarise themselves with the layout prior to arriving onsite.

Finally, the highest level is training, particularly for processes and experiences. Kirby said “the coolest thing we have done is built training systems with avatars to assist in training in virtual worlds”.  Melbourne Water has used VR technology to train operators how to properly operate and maintain ozone generators, which can be dangerous if mishandled.

“It feels like you’re in a dangerous situation. It’s that kind of immersion that makes you feel as though you’re there,” Kirby said.

“You have a level of experience and engagement that you don’t get in other ways. VR is like sitting front row at a 3D IMAX theatre with big wrap-around screens. And when a fish comes out of the screen, you move your head to the side to avoid the fish.

“It’s a completely different experience from watching an old-fashioned small television screen.”

David Kirby will be presenting on virtual reality and sustainability at the upcoming Where the Waters Meet 2018 Tasmania Annual Conference. To learn more and to register, click here.

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