‘It’s a bit like RoboCop or Minority Report’ said Rav Kugananthan, a project engineer working at Crossrail’s Liverpool Street station, as he squeezed his head into one of the project’s most radical innovations.
Although still at the development stage, the smart helmet Rav was modelling provided a glimpse into what will very likely be a common sight on construction sites within the next five years as technology popularised by the gaming industry starts to find a home in engineering and construction.
The helmet itself is made by Daqri, a US augmented reality company. Crossrail has been working with another tech company, Glaswegian digital design firm Soluis, to create an augmented reality (AR) solution to aid the project’s delivery. Soluis is also trialling its software with Microsoft’s HoloLens ‘mixed reality’ headsets.
The software, InSite, allows the operator to access any information held about an asset just by looking at it. Data and photos can then be transferred back to a central database directly from the site. The headset also keeps the user’s hands free; tasks can be carried out more safely, without having to look down at a screen or paper files.
The smart helmet is one of more than 60 ideas funded by Crossrail through its innovation programme, Innovate18. The scheme’s members include the 18 main contractors on the project and more than 1,000 individual members. Each of the companies has helped fund the project; this was then match funded by Crossrail. Ideas are submitted through the Innovate18 portal and then a Project Champion decides whether to pursue it or not.
Some of the innovations have taken preexisting technology and applied it in new ways. One novel solution has been to use small portable projectors to deliver safety briefings in the tunnels, saving the time and associated risks of having to go back and forth from meeting rooms: a substantial benefit when it can take 20 minutes to travel from the site office into the tunnels.
Some of Innovate18’s solutions have involved emerging technologies. Drones have been utilised for surveying inside the tunnels and 360-degree cameras have been used to create interactive photos and videos of worksites. Crossrail’s engineering teams have also used 3D printers to create small models of construction components to help visualise and plan works.
Rav demonstrated several of the innovations, including the smart helmet, 40 metres below ground in one of the 220-metre tunnels which link the new ticket halls at Liverpool Street station and Moorgate station.
As well as being the guinea pig for innovative new products and construction techniques, it was at the Liverpool Street station site that one of the most significant archaeological finds was made. The remains or 42 people were found in a mass grave, believed to have been a pit for victims of the Great Plague, within the former Bedlam burial ground.
Around 450 ideas have been submitted through Innovate18. The programme’s success means it will have a life beyond Crossrail as I3P and will likely be adopted by Crossrail 2. The hope is that many of the innovations that have helped improve safety and efficiency on Crossrail can be applied at the design stage of future projects, delivering greater benefits.
The application of virtual reality (VR) and AR, in particular, is an area of focus within the transport and engineering sectors. Earlier this year, Transport Systems Catapult (TSC) opened its Visualisation Laboratory – a high-tech suite it is offering up to the industry to trial VR and augmented reality technologies.
‘It will definitely have a positive impact,’ said Martin Pett, principal technologist (human factors) at TSC, talking about the application of VR and AR in the transport and construction industries.
Although the lab was only opened in the summer, it is already being upgraded to keep pace with this fast- developing field.
TSC is acquiring devices known as haptic suits and gloves to make its VR worlds more immersive. The suits recreate the sense of touch for the wearer. Martin said that, combined with programmes that simulate passenger flows, they would be able to recreate the hustle and bustle of a busy railway station.
One of the projects TSC is working on is an augmented reality app which would allow people to see what it is like for passengers with a visual impairment to negotiate the station environment.
The gaming industry has led the way in the development in VR until now, but Martin believes that other industries will become more prominent in the future. TSC is part of the ImmerseUK network – a group of organisations looking to work across industries to develop VR technologies within their businesses. It includes the likes of Rolls-Royce, BT and Disney. Martin said 2017 would provide some clarity on how VR and AR will evolve in the workplace.
‘It has definitely been the entertainment industry’s golden child… but there’s more and more people finding serious applications for it.’