Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are new technologies that are finding their way into engineering environments and are offering great advantages over traditional means of working. Augmented reality, sometimes known as mixed reality, typically uses mobile phones or wearable technology such as glasses to overlay information over a real-world view. Virtual reality is a more immersive experience and allows the user to look around and interact with a virtual space.
Fundamentally, AR and VR are new ways of sharing information. Digital technologies can grab attention and hold it in a way simple pictures cannot. Some people, especially outside of an engineering background, will have an easier time understanding a 3D model rather than digesting information from a technical drawing. A digital model is much quicker and easier to produce than a physical one and bypasses the challenges of storage or transportation. Some of the easiest ways of implementing digital technologies is by utilising them to enhance engagement with clients and with the public. Files can be easily shared through QR codes on traditional media such as information boards, magazines or through email.
Network Rail have already begun to use augmented reality to preview replacement footbridges as 3D models in the real world. Different options can be compared on site using a lightweight app on a smartphone, with information being made available to the public at the appropriate stage of the design process.
AR and VR can also be used in staff training. For example, HS2 have built a virtual model of their new London Hub (Old Oak Common), which allowed staff members to become familiar with the station and its workings as well as to run simulations on maintenance - before the station is even constructed! Training in this manner can help avoid the difficulties associated with hosting in-person events.
Members of the public using train stations can be supported in real-time with directions to shops and transport links, or informed about timetables or delays of journeys tailored to their travel habits. As a consequence, people are better informed and thus require less assistance from station crews.
Track maintenance teams can also use AR to improve their work. The data gathered from running trains or other track monitoring systems can be used to guide maintenance teams reviewing defects by wearing smart glasses, therefore the collaboration between site teams and office-based staff becomes easier and more cost effective. Predictive maintenance can even be performed when advanced weather forecasting and AI are integrated. AR can also be used to illustrate things that would otherwise be hidden, such as the route of underground utilities, without having to dig holes. A small number of cities have implemented these technologies already, such as rail teams in the Greater Boston area.
I became interested in digital technologies myself after seeing developments in the industry on social media platforms such as LinkedIn and finding a shared curiosity about them with our Directors. I found that the 3D CAD models we were already producing could also be used to produce photo-realistic renders with relatively minimal modification using new software we procured. Both programs were compatible so integration has been easy. We’ve since been able to use renders to produce free-roaming models, both VR and flatscreen videos as well as high quality images in order to support designs. These tools proved valuable for high client and public engagement, showcasing the final appearance of a footbridge, for example.
The uses for AR and VR in the rail industry are becoming more and more widespread. Becoming early adapters of digital engineering practices can pose certain challenges when implementing changes to working practices and using new technology, both in terms of software and hardware. Nevertheless, we endeavour to convey designs with real visual impact and increased clarity or usability by using these tools when appropriate for the project scope.
One of FJD Consulting’s five core values being ‘innovate’, we are committed to finding and developing new ways of delivering our work, a prime example being pioneering the use of AR and VR in our projects.