Travel restrictions during the COVID-19 crisis have forced many firms to explore new ways of working.
At engineering consultant Atkins, the response to the pandemic has been to accelerate the uptake of technology for collecting, managing and remotely visualising data.
Atkins principal engineer in its nuclear & power division Sam Stephens says the ability to quickly capture onsite information for use by colleagues offsite has become a key capability in the crisis.
“Over the last five years or so we’ve invested quite heavily in upskilling our staff in the use of [data-gathering] equipment, investing in hardware, and as we’ve progressively developed our capability, we’ve driven down the cost of that. We’ve increased the speed with which we can capture data, but also the hardware has improved as well.”
Progress in rugged cameras aimed at consumers has dramatically reduced costs, Stephens notes. “We conducted a survey just this week with a £500 GoPro that we bought from John Lewis,” he says. “It really is at that sort of level. But in terms of the quality of imagery that you can get: within 20 minutes of a site walkaround you can get a full 360-degree video of a site that can then be viewed remotely by as many of the project team as possible.”
Lockdown toolkit Atkins is using a variety of gear to link up onsite and offsite work in the coronavirus crisis:
Helmet-mounted 360-degree video cameras such as GoPro’s Max 360 to capture footage of site visits. The footage can be viewed on a flat screen or via a virtual-reality headset.
FARO S70 Laser scanners can be mounted on a tripod to complete a full point-cloud scan, for importing into CAD software.
Microsoft Hololens 2 headsets with Remote Assist4 Skype functionality. By shipping the headset to site, others can view what the wearer sees via Skype, with Skype’s recording function used to share and replay the captured scenes later on.
Atkins’ ICON platform allows users to view and interact with 3D data via PC, tablet or VR headset. Built on gaming technology, it provides multiplayer features to allow multiple remote users to view the same model in real-time.
Asset Explorer – lightweight, web-based software that allows 360-degree imagery and 2D photos to be tagged to a building floor plan for remote viewing through a web browser.
Atkins’ Digital Twin Platform, developed to host data from 3D laser scans, drones and 3D modelling, can be deployed on cloud servers for remote access.
The Wazoku crowdsourcing platform allows users to outline a problem and seek solutions or suggestions from colleagues across the UK and Europe
With those who can work at home still expected to do so, the ability to gather data for use by a wider team remains “a burning need”, Stephens says. “We can use essential workers who are already on site to gather data for us, without us needing to even set foot on site,” he says.
Stephens explains that this process allowed an initial survey to be made of a safety critical structure at a client site in the energy sector. Someone already on site was able to use a 360-degree camera and a handheld laser scanner to gather a “point cloud” of precise measurements that can be used to build up a 3D model of an existing structure.
A tripod-mounted laser scanner gathers 3D point-cloud data
“Normally we’d conduct a site walkdown. You’d view the site, get access to whatever areas we can. Now, with the current situation, we’re not able to do that, so we face two options. Either we delay and defer the work – which isn’t great for us as a business and isn’t great for our client, who obviously wants to keep this project moving – or we find a different approach.”
Where using existing onsite personnel is not possible or appropriate, an engineering group can often still get the data it needs by sending just one person rather than a whole team, Stephens adds, using remote collaboration software to ensure the right data is captured.
“There’s a real need for collaboration [when] capturing this data, and creating platforms that allow us, our clients and also our wider supply chain to view it and get value from it,” Stephens says.
“We’re starting to aggregate all this information together – the point cloud, 3D model, but also the static 360-degree images, and bring this together in a virtual environment, such that people offsite can view all the information in one place.”
Microsoft’s augmented reality (AR) system, HoloLens 2, counts among the more promising technologies Atkins has employed, Stephens says. “This has come about through the collaboration that we have across the wider SNC-Lavalin group […] particularly one of my colleagues in Canada, who has links into [Microsoft’s] early adopter programme,” Stephens says.
HoloLens provides a head-mounted transparent display system that layers AR information over the wearer’s normal view of their surroundings. The view of the world through the headset can also be accessed by other team members remotely.
“Initially, we started looking at how we could visualise existing 3D data onsite. And then with the coronavirus, we quickly then saw the need for being able to do something a bit more basic,” Stephens says. “We’re now using what’s called the Remote Assist function in HoloLens 2, to conduct meetings with one person onsite and many people back in the office, viewing what that person can see but also interacting with it.”
HoloLens 2's Remote Assist function allows real-time collaboration via augmented reality
The remote team can bring up documents and mark up what they would like the onsite person to do, with visual instructions – such as arrows or highlights – appearing in the headset’s field of view. Usage has focused on two particular tasks, Stephens says: carrying out live reviews or inspections of sites ahead of particular tasks, and signing off completed work.
Stephens describes the factory sign-off on a pressure vessel used in a water treatment plant: “How were we going to deliver the factory acceptance test without any ability to visit their location in New Jersey? Our solution was to send them a HoloLens, allow one of their staff to put on the headset, and then for us to dial in remotely and direct that person to do the full factory acceptance test under our viewing and under our direction.”
As a bonus, Stephens observes, the whole interaction could be easily recorded to provide an audit trail of the testing process. “With a lot of these solutions, they address an immediate need, but then we actually see new benefits,” he says. “You’re capturing much more data onsite for review offsite, and you’re filling in those gaps where previously you might have made assumptions.”